With Halloween just behind us and Christmas on the way, many of us will find ourselves tempted by sugary treats. We all know that restricting our sugar intake is good for physical health, but what about mental health? Here, we take a look at the effects it has on your brain and the consequences for your mental health.
Links between sugar and mental health problems may have a number of possible causes. Firstly, a diet high in sugar may have a negative effect on overall physical health, which can be a powerful determinant of mental well-being. Another theory suggests that the link between sugar and depression is because sugar suppresses activity of BDNF in the brain. This growth hormone plays an important role in brain health. Psychiatric researcher Malcolm Peet argues that this suggests a strong link between high sugar consumption and the risk of certain mental illnesses.
A 2012 UCLA study on rats suggests that eating large quantities of fructose (a type of sugar found in many manufactured food products) over a long period of time can alter the brain’s ability to learn and remember information. However, the same study discovered that adding omega-3 fatty acids to the diet can help to minimise the damage caused by fructose.
According to neuroscientist Nicole Avena, sugar has the potential to activate a “rewards system” when we eat it. On tasting sugar, our tongue sends a signal to the brain which releases dopamine – a feel good chemical. This encourages us to eat more and potentially creates a very addictive cycle. This might explain why turning down sugary snacks and treats can sometimes feel like it requires a lot more willpower.
It can be very hard to resist sugar, especially when we’re surrounded by leftover trick-or-treat supplies and festive flavoured hot chocolates. Sugar can, on occasion, be enjoyed in moderation. However, if you notice yourself consuming large quantities of sugar or small quantities on a very regular basis, try to remember the less obvious effects your sugar habit might be having on your health.