The Effects of Sugar on Your Mental Health

In recent health news, there has been buzz about the effects of sugar intake on mental health. This is not necessarily a new concept, but is receiving attention and scientific research recently. There is a growing body of evidence that links higher sugar consumption with major depressive disorder among other health issues. It is one of the newer official food “enemies” to avoid. The concept of fat being the dietary culprit is becoming more dated with discoveries of the benefits of good fats for our health.

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. Simple carbohydrates are needed for cell and body functions, but the body is capable of easily breaking down more complex carbohydrates into simple ones. Sugar is not considered necessary in our diets. Rather, there is a limit to how much we should consume being that it seems to cause a myriad of harmful effects. More than being bad for our teeth and causing weight gain and energy crashes, sugar can do sizable harm to our mental and physical health.

Sugar intake causes neurological damage, cognitive decline associated with mental health issues, and increases the risk of stroke and dementia. Neurons that make up our nerves and brains are very delicate and they are not equipped to handle extreme blood sugar spikes. This may damage them severely, as evidenced by the case of diabetics who often experience neurological damage. Glucose causes inflammation, oxidative stress, damage, and death in neurological cells. These cells are in charge of keeping the neurotransmitters in our brains and bodies balanced. The neurological damage can lead to damage in brain chemistry and is associated with clinical depression. This research is helping us to better understand the strong link between diabetes and Alzeimer’s as well.

Sugar intake has a significant connection to depression. Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, James Gangwisch, wanted to find out what effect added sugar and carbohydrates had on mood and mental health. He ran a study on 7,000 postmenopausal women from 1994-1998. The foods they ate were measured on the Glycemic Index to see how much they were spiking their blood sugar. The results showed that higher GI diet led to higher rates of depression, even for women who did not have depression at the beginning of the study. He found that on the other hand, women eating dairy, fiber, non-juiced fruit and vegetables had lower odds for depression.

High GI diets were causing mood swings, anxiety, hunger, irritability, fatigue and inflammation in the test subjects. The professor emphasized how many of  the women thought they were making bad food choices because of their moods and depression, but the study actually shows that the poor food choices were contributing to or even causing the depression. He also stated he is staring work on treating or preventing depression with low GI diets.

The most logical solution to all of these findings is to decrease or even eliminate our sugar intake. However, doing away with sugar altogether is harder to do than you might imagine. The odds are really stacked against us. Many convenient, processed foods that are higher in sugar are constantly marketed and made available to us. The sugar may be hidden in sauces or even savory processed food. Breakfast cereal, ketchup, flavored milk, fruit yogurt, bread, fruit juices and even bottled smoothies are very high in sugar. Always read the nutrition label and check out how many grams of sugar are in the things you buy. You may be surprised at the amounts of sugar that can be lurking in everyday foods.

Foods with less refined ingredients and more omega-3’s, fatty acids, fiber, vitamins and minerals have been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression. Scientists are convinced this is because these types of foods promote good brain and neuronal health. These are the foods we should focus on including in our diets instead of sugar to help improve mental health.


Gangwisch, James E, et al. “James E Gangwisch.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2015,

Hewings-Martin, Yella. “Sugar and Mental Health: A Toxic Combination?” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 5 Aug. 2017,

Ozawa, Mio, et al. “Dietary Pattern, Inflammation and Cognitive Decline: The Whitehall II Prospective Cohort Study.”, ScienceDirect, 21 Jan. 2016.

Pase, Mattew P., and Jayandra J. Himali. “Sugar- and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Incident Stroke and Dementia.” American Heart Association, Inc., 2017, doi:10.1161/STROKEAHA.116.016027.

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