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Sugar: It may be an Addiction

Posted January 06, 2019 by Suman Vellanki, M.D. Summa Health Addiction Medicine

Sugar Blog

Most of us know that too much sugar is not good for our overall health. But what you may not know is that growing research is showing what’s bad for the body may also be bad for the brain.

A recent study published in Scientific Reports found that a group of men between 35 and 55 who consumed more than 67 grams of sugar daily from sweetened foods and beverages were more likely to develop anxietydepression, and other common mental disorders after 5 years, compared with men with a lower daily sugar intake. In no way does this imply that excess sugar causes mental disorders in the general population; rather this was a select study which also found no similar correlation for the women who participated in the research.

The reality is that, often, consumption of high-sugar “comfort” foods can be a coping strategy for emotional distress. One might event theorize that it is the depression or other psychiatric issue that leads to the overconsumption. It is true, however, that once you begin consuming high-sugar foods, your body and brain continue to crave them, which can lead to an addiction-type cycle.

In the U.S., most adults consume roughly 22 teaspoons of sugar each day; that’s close to 400 calories of a person’s daily recommended intake going straight to sugar. The actual recommended amount of sugar is 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men per day, roughly 100 calories.

Here are three different mental health concerns that could be affected by excess sugar consumption:

  • Cognitive abilities: a study from UCLA examined the effect of a high-fructose diet on rats. At the conclusion of the study, the rats could no longer find their way out of a maze, while their sugar-free counterparts had no trouble navigating it. The team found that genes in the brain could physically be damaged by high levels of fructose consumption. 
  • Anxiety: While there isn’t enough research to show that sugar causes anxiety, it can make episodes more severe in certain cases. As with depression, the highs and lows of sugar crashes can make you feel irritable and tense, even shaky; for anyone who suffers from anxiety attacks, these feelings can cause attacks to be more severe. Sugar also weakens your body’s defense against stress and stress has been shown to have a direct link to more intense episodes of anxiety.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: Sugar and processed junk foods flood the brain with dopamine. This ‘feel-great’ chemical can also be found - in much higher doses - in most controlled substances, like cocaine. If you ingest high amounts of fructose on a daily basis, eliminating them can feel very much like a drug withdrawal episode. Some individuals can experience uncontrollable shakes, irritability, nausea, fever, chills and other symptoms.

There is additional research linking addiction to sugar and addiction to controlled substances together. This study identified neural activity linked to food addiction; but more research on that link needs to be conducted.

Millions of Americans experience mental health issues every year. The symptoms related to these conditions can disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Summa Health Behavioral Health Institute can help you experience relief from symptoms while gathering hope for new possibilities in your life.

We practice a patient-centered philosophy and are committed to meeting each patient’s mental health needs in a holistic manner. We also actively collaborate with other departments within Summa Health, like the Family Medicine Program, Internal Medicine Program, Weight Management Institute, Seniors Institute, Cancer Institute, Heart and Vascular Institute and more. For more information, call 234.867.7965.

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