The Effects of Sugar on Mood

What you eat can dramatically impact your mood. You can likely recall eating a heavy meal — say, meat lasagna followed by a big piece of tiramisu — and subsequently feeling lethargic and moody. Or maybe you ate a big salad for lunch and felt invigorated and focused all afternoon.

Conversely, your mood can influence food preference. If you’re feeling down after a rough day at work, you’re more likely to devour a pint of butter pecan ice cream watching Seinfeld reruns than eat wild-caught salmon and spinach and hit the gym. Feeling invigorated after a good workout, on the other hand, might encourage you to grab some grilled chicken and steamed vegetables on your way home.

Numerous foods can sabotage your happiness and well-being, but sugar might be the most jeopardizing. One review of numerous studies confirmed that sugar has an adverse effect on long-term psychological health, including depression and anxiety. Researchers see a parallel between increased sugar intake and mood disorders. According to Mark Hyman, M.D., in Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?, altogether the average American eats about one-third of a pound of sugar or more daily. He calls this “a toxic drug dose.”

Lowering your intake of sugar, on the other hand, may improve psychological health. That’s important when you consider that depression impacts up to 10 percent of American adults, and about one-third of people with depression don’t respond to conventional antidepressant therapies. High-glycemic diets, or diets high in refined carbohydrates, can create or exacerbate anxiety that can also sabotage your mood. About 40 million adults — 18 percent of the population — struggle with anxiety, and about half of those with depression also struggle with anxiety.

Effects of High Blood Sugar on Mood

Think about a time you ate too much ice cream or maybe over-indulged in a second helping of pasta. All carbohydrates convert to sugar in your body, including that pasta. Chances are, you felt good for a little bit. But after a few hours, you may have felt tired, cranky, maybe a bit mentally foggy, or even a little anxious or unhappy. Oddly, though, you wanted the exact food that created those feelings.

“Initially, sugar satisfies the craving centers in the brain, increases your blood pressure and heart rate, and can give you the feeling of an energy surge,” says Vincent Pedre, M.D., in Happy Gut. “The problem is that the ‘sugar-coaster’ keeps going up and then crashing down. The more you do, the harder you fall.”

Symptoms of your blood sugar spiking include fatigue and headaches, whereas low blood sugar can create anxiety and irritability. Altogether, these up-then-down blood sugar spikes and crashes spell bad news for your mood. Sugar can even act like a drug, triggering your brain’s reward neurotransmitter, dopamine. Even though you know that sugar negatively impacts your mood, you oddly crave more of those foods that leave you feeling bad. In fact, research shows that sugar can be more addictive than cocaine.

Sugar, Inflammation, & Mood

Eating too much sugar can also increase inflammation, which plays a role in numerous diseases. Researchers surmise that inflammation triggers or exacerbates depression since people with major depressive disorder often have increased inflammatory markers. Other studies show that inflammation contributes to anxiety and fear. Researchers argue that targeting inflammation could positively impact these mood disorders.

Diets that promote inflammation are high in refined starches, sugar, and unhealthy fats while being low in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and fiber. On average, Americans eat 20 times or more omega-6 fatty acids (found in vegetable oils and processed foods) compared to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. In other words, sugar isn’t the only dietary culprit for mood disorders. However, many sugary processed foods also contain inflammatory ingredients, including gluten and the aforementioned vegetable oils.

Sugar and the Gut-Brain Connection

Too much sugar can increase inflammation throughout your body, including your gut. Research shows that gut inflammation contributes to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. One study found the simple sugar, fructose, could contribute to leaky gut, a condition where things not intended to slip through your gut wall do, creating an immune reaction and inflammation.

Sugar and Anxiety

What affects your gut also affects your brain. Scientists call this the gut-brain axis: your gut sends various hormones, neurotransmitters, and immunological factors to your brain. One of those is serotonin. Your gut manufacturers about 90 percent of this feel-good neurotransmitter. Gut problems mean you might not manufacture enough of these mood-modulating neurotransmitters, contributing to depression and other mood disorders. “Being in charge of producing so much of this ‘happy chemical,’ along with about thirty other neurotransmitters, it’s no wonder the gut is central to feeling happy,” says Vincent Pedre, MD, in Happy Gut.

13 Ways to Reduce Sugar & Optimize Mood

The science of mood disorders is complex and multifactorial, and blaming one culprit — in this case, sugar — could oversimplify the problem. But sugar is definitely one piece of the mood-disorder puzzle. That momentary bliss sugar can provide comes at the cost of triggering or exacerbating feelings like anxiety or depression.

Stabilizing your mood requires tapering off sugary foods, eating a mood-enhancing diet, and creating healthy lifestyle strategies that help you feel good. These 13 strategies provide a solid mood-enhancing foundation.

Note: If you suffer from debilitating anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders, please seek professional help. While these strategies can help, more serious conditions oftentimes require a healthcare professional.

1. Maintain a healthy weight.

Studies connect obesity with mood disorders like depression and anxiety, which can create a vicious cycle where you seek unhealthy comfort foods to curb those feelings. Our Core and Advanced Nutrition Plans provide a nutrient-dense foundation, which can help you lose and maintain weight and better stabilize your blood sugar levels so you feel energetic and even-keeled throughout the day.

2. Get off to the right start.

Eating a nutrient-dense breakfast rich in protein and fiber makes a great way to stabilize your mood and reduce sugar cravings and gives your day a healthy start. Our Mint Chocolate Smoothie Recipe makes a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth and start the day off right.

3. Tame your sweet tooth.

Telling yourself you’ll never eat another piece of birthday cake or enjoy a midsummer ice cream cone isn’t realistic. Enjoying something sweet is one of life’s pleasures, but make those indulgences a special occasion rather than an everyday thing. Getting your sugar habit under control means you’ll better appreciate the natural sweetness of foods like berries, nuts, and even leafy green vegetables.

4. Eat foods that stabilize blood sugar levels.

One case study involving a 15-year-old female found that a diet rich in sugar and other refined carbohydrates contributed to her generalized anxiety disorder. Adding blood sugar-stabilizing protein, fat, and fiber to her diet (in other words, the foods that form our Core and Advanced plans) dramatically decreased anxiety symptoms and stabilized her blood sugar levels. When she returned to the higher-glycemic diet, her anxiety symptoms recurred.

5. Pinpoint sneaky sugar sources.

Manufacturers hide sugar in so-called healthy foods including almond milk, marinara sauce, and flavored waters. The cumulative effect of hidden sugars and artificial sweeteners can negatively impact your mood. Do not pay attention to the label that says, “no added sugar;” the only way to know whether sugar hides in your processed foods is to read the ingredients. Hint: Anything with, “-ose,” is sugar. So are “healthy” sweeteners, including honey, agave, and coconut sugar that more or less have the same impact as table sugar.

6. Increase mood-boosting foods.

Good mood foods are nutrient-dense and stabilize blood sugar levels to optimize your mood. Among these mood-boosting foods include:

  • Dark chocolate: Researchers show chocolate can increase pleasant feelings and reduce tension. Look for an organic raw dark chocolate with at least 85 percent cacao, five grams of sugar or less per serving, and enjoy in moderation.
  • Wild-caught fish: The omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) optimize mood levels and lower inflammation and protein stabilizes blood sugar.
  • Non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruit: These nutrient-dense foods include mood-stabilizing nutrients such as thiamine (vitamin B1), iron, and folate. Research shows raw fruits and vegetables can boost mood better than cooked or processed fruits and vegetables so include plenty of leafy greens and berries in your meals.
  • Green tea: The amino acid L-theanine in this calming beverage can reduce anxiety and stabilize your mood. Look for organic decaffeinated green tea whenever possible.

7. Get the right nutrients.

A healthy diet is the foundation to stabilize mood, but a few well-chosen nutrients can support how you eat. Among them include:

8. Try this cravings crusher.

Sugar cravings can sabotage even the most disciplined person. One way to combat cravings is with L-glutamine, a multi-tasking amino acid that can help curb your sweet tooth. In The 150 Most Effective Ways To Boost Your Energy, Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., says that, “a spoonful of [L-glutamine] powder will do wonders for knocking your sugar cravings right out of the park.” Our formula mixes well into protein shakes, smoothies, or water.

9. Find an exercise that you enjoy (and do it).

The endorphins your body releases after a good workout can brighten your mood. Research even suggests moderate amounts of exercise can act as a drug to create a calm, stable mood and help reduce anxiety and depression. High-intensity workouts fit into the busiest schedule so time isn’t ever an excuse not to work out. Learn how to create a simple yet powerful workout plan that is only 12 minutes a day.  

10. Optimize sleep.

If you’ve struggled with anxiety or depression after tossing and turning all night, you know how sleep can impact mood. One study among healthy adolescents found sleep deprivation adversely impacts mood, with females especially feeling more vulnerable. Good sleep is crucial at every age so aim for at least seven to eight hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night. Our Sleep & Mood formula can help reduce anxiety and more easily drift off into sleep.

11. Incorporate natural mood boosters.

Find a healthy pick-me-up and make it a habit. That might include yoga, meditation, walking your dog, meeting a friend for tea, or keeping a gratitude journal. One study found expressing thankfulness lowered risk of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and drug abuse.

12. Manage stress levels.

You’re not alone if you had a long day at work or ran into traffic on your way home and subsequently felt depressed or anxious: Stress can create or exacerbate mood disorders. Finding ways to manage stress — even if that means taking just five minutes to close your eyes and perform some deep breathing throughout a hectic office day — can have a profound impact on your mood.

13. Try natural sugar alternatives.

Eliminating added sugar is ideal to stabilize mood, but sometimes you want a little sweetener in your tea or food. Artificial sweeteners can actually be worse than regular sugar: A study revealed that aspartame users felt more irritable and depressed. Instead, choose a natural sugar alternative, such as xylitol, erythritol, or stevia, which have minimal if any impact on blood sugar levels.  

Reducing your intake of added sugar and implementing these strategies to stabilize blood sugar levels can have a profound effect on your mood. Depending on your condition, you might need additional strategies to support your mood. Talk with your healthcare professional to create a plan that creates and maintains calmness, happiness, and well-being.