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Natural Awakenings Greater Boston - Rhode Island

Sugar Blues: The Role Sweets Play in Mental Health

Oct 31, 2022 09:31AM ● By Alora Frederick
It is not news that highly processed foods with tremendous amounts of refined sugar are detrimental to the human body. What is less common knowledge is how that sugar may be playing a significant role in mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, poor memory, brain fog and dementia.

Sugar impacts mental health through various pathways. Dietary sugar can induce low-grade chronic inflammation and neuroinflammation by mediating immune T-cell inflammation as well as increasing levels of proinflammatory cytokines. Refined sugar intake also creates a roller coaster ride for blood sugar levels. For overall health and especially mental health, the aim is to have a flattened, relatively even blood sugar curve throughout the day.

Diseases related to blood sugar dysregulation such as insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes often share similar inflammatory blood markers with mental health states like depression. Additionally, individuals with diabetes have a higher risk of developing depression, and individuals with depression may be at a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Sugar may also negatively influence mental health via the gut-brain connection. High sugar intake reduces microbial diversity which results in fewer short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) being produced in the gut. SCFAs provide ample health benefits, including benefits to mental health. SCFAs may reduce anxiety and depression as well as stimulate gut cells to increase serotonin production.

Brain Diets

The diets most researched for their positive benefits on brain health have something in common, which is that they both minimize added sugar. These diets are the Mediterranean diet and the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH-Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, a hybrid of the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet. It’s not just the minimal intake of added sugars that makes these the most supportive diets for long-term brain health but also the inclusion of nutrient-rich whole foods like fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts, whole grains and olive oil.

Consuming processed foods rich in refined sugar inherently results in a lower intake of other brain-supportive nutrients. Certain nutrients such as antioxidants, flavonoids, zinc, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA lessen neuroinflammation. The most direct way to gain access to these nutrients is to regularly consume foods that contain them. Subsequently, this results in a dramatically lower intake of refined sugars, a win-win.

A crucial distinction between refined sugar versus natural sugars that occur in fruits or certain vegetables needs to be made. Whole food sources of sugar, such as fruit, contain water, fiber, antioxidants and other vitamins that regulate the absorption and metabolism of sugar. For example, berries are one of the most brain-supportive foods, and regular consumption may lower the risk of dementia, prevent age-related memory loss, alleviate depression and anxiety and reduce the effects of Alzheimer’s.

Finding Balance

Sweet treats are culturally significant, whether it’s a birthday cake or a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. To restrict and be excluded from enjoying these foods with family and friends may also be detrimental to mental health. Rather than avoiding this food entirely, self-assess whether an extra bit of inflammation in the body can be handled at the moment. What other aspects of inflammation are already present: high stress, low vegetable intake, low fiber intake, poor sleep and alcohol intake? The sweet treat may be the mental health tipping point in terms of inflammatory load, or it could be perfectly fine. Positive mental health outcomes can be supported while still enjoying special occasions and sweet treats with loved ones.

Alora Frederick, RDN, LDN, is an integrative and functional dietitian in Waltham, MA. She is currently accepting new patients at JohnsonCompounding and Wellness for virtual nutrition appointments. Schedule a free, 15-minute introductory call at