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Does Sugar Cause Mental Illness?

The effects of refined sugar on the mind

Ben Michaelis
Source: Ben Michaelis

I'm not an extremist. I'm not someone that takes information and runs with it. Nor am I a "health nut." I eat popcorn at the movies, steal my kids' Snickers out of their Halloween stash (parent tax), and I know my way around a Bear Claw.

This weekend, while visiting a major U.S. theme park, my family and I consumed far more refined sugar than usual. Yesterday, we all had waffles, ice cream pops, and a noticeable amount of candy. I figured, we usually eat pretty well, and we were on vacation, how bad could it be?

In the hours that followed, what I observed in my family was extreme: temper tantrums, impulsivity, anger, sadness, mood-swings, and anxiety. It's not that I haven't seen these things before: I have. My family is no different from anyone else's, but the sheer volume, magnitude and frequency of these behavioral changes gave me pause.

As scientists continue to make connections between the human microbiome and behavior, more and more evidence is amassing that the old adage is true: you are what you eat, especially when it comes to your mind.

There is already compelling research evidence demonstrating that the consumption of refined sugar increases your risk for depression and worsens schizophrenia.  Refined sugar causes neuroinflammation, which has been suggested as a cause for depression. Sugar has been shown to intensify the symptoms of anxiety.  In 2008, researchers demonstrated that rats who binged on sucrose and then fasted entered a state of anxiety and altered accumbens dopamine and acetylcholine balance, which they likened to "opiate-like withdrawal." 

Although there is no evidence indicating that sugar actually causes mental illness, I am certain that it is a contributing factor.  You can think of eating refined sugar like being poor. Being poor doesn't cause mental illness, but the stresses that exist in poor communities increase the likelihood that mental illness will emerge. Similarly, eating sugar alone will probably not cause you to become depressed, anxious, or have psychotic symptoms, but it almost certainly increase the chances that this will happen.

It is possible that someone could refute these observations or say that sugar is sugar, regardless of whether it comes from candy or fruit. The fact is that all sugar is not the same. Sugar that comes from fruit is not refined and comes prepackaged with fiber, which is known to slow down the process of the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. More to the point: I have never seen my kids act this way after eating a couple of bananas.

In closing, our weekend away is not going to make me give up refined sugars entirely. I am still going to have chocolate chip cookies on occasion and dessert at some meals. What it will make me do is rethink my choices and most importantly the choices I make for my children's mental health.