Why Sugar Is Poison to Depression


Sugar_2xmacroI have a theory: Many people who suffer from chronic severe depression and anxiety are allergic to sugar and foods like white flour that the human body processes like sugar.

Like most of my theories, I have tested this one on my 13-year-old son, because his brain is most like mine in our family (poor guy). After he has consumed three pumpkin muffins, his character completely changes, like the Green Goblin (Norman Osborn) in Spider-Man. Depending on the amount of fructose corn syrup in the muffins, his head sometimes spins around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and his pupils can do a 360 in the eye sockets. He is horribly obnoxious for about three hours—twerking at the refrigerator, riding his lacrosse stick like a horse through the living room–and then he starts sobbing: “I hate my life!! Someone please shoot me!” Often the next morning he will wake up hung over, with purple circles under his swollen eyes.

You would think that two somewhat intelligent parents would have picked up on this connection between his behavior and his diet in the first decade of his life, but it has only been in the last year we’ve been documenting the experiment. It’s harder than you think to get your kid excited about vegetables and steer him away from any kind of food offered in a vending machine. Whenever we try to encourage positive eating habits, something seems to go terribly wrong. Like the time we thought we’d have a fun family outing at Potbellies.

Eric: “David, do you think you could get a salad?”

Katherine (11-years-old): “I’m getting a sub!”

David (crying): “It’s not fair! I hate my brain!”

Eric: “Well, Katherine didn’t get the skinny gene.”

Katherine (crying): “You think I’m fat!”

Eric: “Let’s just go home.

I feel badly for my little guy because I know how delicate he is. Three pumpkin muffins would also have me thinking, “I hate my life; please shoot me.” I just don’t say it aloud. I blog about it. Seeing his reactions to Oreos and frappuccinos, however, confirms my theory on sugar, that some homo sapiens can’t handle the chemical formula C12H22O11.

In his bestseller The Ultramind Solution, Mark Hyman, M.D., writes:

“There is no scientific controversy here. The evidence is in. Sugar causes inflammation. The insulin-resistant fat cells you pack on when you eat too much sugar produces nasty inflammatory messages (cytokines) … spreading their damage to the brain. In fact, researchers have suggested calling depression “metabolic syndrome Type II” because instead of just having a fat swollen belly, you also get a fat swollen (and depressed) brain. And psychiatrists are starting to treat depression and psychiatric disorders with anti-diabetic drugs like Actos! These drugs lower blood sugar, lower insulin, and reduce inflammation.”

Besides causing insulin and blood sugar imbalances in your blood, refined carbohydrates and sugars use up the B vitamins we need to sustain good moods. In a study published in British Journal of Psychiatry, 3500 middle-aged participants were given a diet of whole foods (plenty of vegetables, fruit, and fish) or a diet of processed foods (loaded with desserts, fried food, refined grains). Five years later, the group who ate the processed foods had a 58 percent increased risk for depression, while the group who ate whole foods had a 26 percent reduced risk of depression. The right foods seem to be able to protect a person, to some extent, from developing a mood disorder.

At the Brain Bio Center, a nonprofit clinic run by FoodfortheBrain.org to help individuals use nutrition, diet, and lifestyle recommendations to assist mental health conditions, the specialists say that poor blood sugar is often the single-biggest factor in mood disorders among the people that seek their advice. On their article on depression, they write:

“Eating lots of sugar is going to give you sudden peaks and troughs in the amount of glucose in your blood; symptoms that this is going on include fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia, excessive sweating (especially at night), poor concentration and forgetfulness, excessive thirst, depression and crying spells, digestive disturbances and blurred vision. Since the brain depends on an even supply of glucose it is no surprise to find that sugar has been implicated in aggressive behavior, anxiety, and depression, and fatigue.”

Sugar also messes with your thyroid, the unassuming butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck that performs the responsibilities of a Grand Central Station for your body, determining how your body uses energy and makes proteins. Thyroid hormones are responsible for regulating metabolism, growth and development, and body temperature. They are also critical to mood.

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease affecting the thyroid gland, is what made journalist and television host Sara Wilson quit sugar three years ago. She writes, “It pretty much crippled me a few years ago, some side effects of which included: whacked-out blood sugar, screwed-up hormones, a predisposition to diabetes and high cholesterol, mood fluctuations, weakness to the point of not being able to work or walk for nine months, weight gain and much more. All of the above are now stable or overcome….I’ve wiped out my antibody markers, something my doctors find astounding. I believe quitting sugar did this.”

I read her bestselling book, “I Quit Sugar,” about a year ago, but it took me nine more months to commit. I had to feel miserable enough to want to eliminate the foods I adore: dark chocolate, sugar cookies, caramel apples. At Thanksgiving dinner last year, I devoured a delicious piece of pumpkin pie with a generous scoop of vanilla ice-cream and lots of whipped cream. Then, for two days, I cried nonstop and did “death math,” where you add up the ages of all your relatives and divide by how many you have to see what average age of death you get—the number of years you have to hang on to, to make it to a natural death.

That was over three months ago. Since then my mood has been much more stable and my sessions of death math are less frequent.

There is something to my theory.

Now if I can just get my son to stay away from the pumpkin muffins.

Join “Nutrition & Mood” on Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.

Originally published on Sanity Break, at Everyday Health.




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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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11 Responses
  1. Reblogged this on Life Matters and commented:
    I think I’m being told to give up sugar. I’ve been having a lot of signs lately. This being one. In my Intensive Outpatient Therapy, yesterday, we talked about the effects of sugar and a couple days before that, I was thinking I need to give up sugar. I’m not sure how to commit too it. This is one of my huge addictions. I don’t know where to start.

  2. I think I’m being told to give up sugar. I’ve been having a lot of signs lately. This being one. In my Intensive Outpatient Therapy, yesterday, we talked about the effects of sugar and a couple days before that, I was thinking I need to give up sugar. I’m not sure how to commit too it. This is one of my huge addictions. I don’t know where to start.

    Thanks for a good post!

    1. Devin, I know how hard it seems, but just take it a day at a time. Once you notice the change, that will help you resist it. There are times that are really hard, but in general, I feel so much better that I don’t miss it. Good luck!

      1. Thanks, so much! Will keep that in mind. I’m also in the process of moving. The people I will be living with are vegan. I am hoping that diet change will also help. I am not going to focus horribly on not eating sugar until I am completely moved. Then go from there.

        Thanks for you response!

  3. Therese, this is another outstanding and truly stunning blog post! In your usual style: personal, subtle but direct, and incredibly well-researched and documented, you composed the scare of a lifetime. I was literally shaking and tearful as I read it.

    Thanks in part to you earlier nutrition posts, and my desire to lose excess weight gained from various anti-depressants, I’ve greatly reduced my consumption of dairy, and cut back somewhat on sugar. Since I’ve surfed through dozens of medication combinations with no significant relief, I (obviously) need to focus more on my diet – as everyone should. The various vitamin and mineral supplements aren’t sufficient to offset a toxic diet.

    Thanks for including links to the various references cited in your piece, as you always do. The link to the Brain Bio Centre “article” on Depression, was particularly revealing.

    As a side note, I noticed that yeast is included in their list of foods to investigate for intolerances (http://www.foodforthebrain.org/nutrition-solutions/depression/action-plan-for-overcoming-depression.aspx ). Many years ago, when our kids were very young, our family greatly reduced our yeast consumption, and realized substantial improvement in mood swings, sleep patterns, skin conditions (less acne, etc.), and my wife’s PMS symptoms.

    Keep up the excellent work!

  4. There are several factors that sugar play in with depression. For example, your system could be over run by candida or yeast. They THRIVE on sugar and they pretty much wreak havoc on your system and your mind. Another long term effect that many of us are familiar with is sugar and weight! We know that too much sugar can cause physical/weight problems which over time contribute to depression due to self confidence issues. Either way, don’t let depression take over your life! There are many methods to get rid of depression. I know this because I have been through severe depression and was able to cure it naturally. If you are going through depression and need help, feel free to let me know and I will try my best to help!

  5. Robert

    Always loathed sugar with a passion. Even as a small kid (in other words, at an age when 99% of people adore sugar), I detested the stuff. This was before I came to appreciate how disastrous sugar is apt to be for anyone suffering from mental and nervous disorders. Thanks again, Therese Borchard, for yet another illuminating and fascinating essay.

  6. Louise R

    Hi Therese I am rite now starting cutting out sugar in my diet or should say hubby too, I already have no gluten, dairy,soy, gmo’s . working on no sugar. we eat and grow our own veggies in the summer time as a child my folks had huge gardens so for the last 8 years I have whats called grow boxes, that use organic soil. that I grow my veggies in and herbs also as much as I can. I make all things from scratch, organic dry beans, wild rice and so on. I do drink coconut milk organic/almond milk, and use coconut oil ,real olive oil , now organic avocado oil i have added and next Macadamia Nut oil next. we eat a lot of salmon as we live one cape cod where i grew up and ate fresh seafood all the time .I just love your blog as I have been depressed on and off after menopause and have high panic & anxiety and psoriasis that I have had from 1958 3rd grade, I’m 65 now and I have broken out badly so I am trying to get my body back to where it was before menopause lol. well got to dash thank you for all you do. weze aka Louise R

  7. Rose5

    Refined white sugar is the problem, organic cane sugar is not toxic and you will notice it’s far less sweet making me wonder if they add chemicals to refined sugar to make it sweeter.
    In the same way, white wheat flour is harmless, the problem is processed foods made with white wheat flour. For example, home-made pasta won’t lead to weight gain like shop-bought ones. The difference is all the hidden additives used during industrial production.