How excessive sugar hurts our physical and mental health

Eva Orsmond’s Sugar Crash documentary on RTÉ woke up hundreds of thousands of people to the dangers of our excessive sugar consumption. But it’s not just our physical health that suffers. It’s also our mood and mental health, says Olivia Kelleher

SUGAR is in so many foods it is almost unavoidable. We might start our day with the best of intentions, only to be lured by that bar of chocolate, as we stand in line waiting to pay for petrol in the filling station.

We know of the impact sugar has on our waistline, but we seldom consider how sugar impacts on our mood and well-being.

Nutrionist Mary Carmody says clients have had their lives dramatically improved by swearing off fructose-laden processed products.

“I had one girl come to me and she said I saved her life. She was feeling down and I zoned in on ‘mood foods.’ I got her off sugar, and eating proper meals, and her mood changed dramatically.”

Eliminating sugar is in no way a cure for depression, but eating ‘mood foods’ and cutting back on sugar can help sufferers.

Vitamin B-enriched foods are noted for their mood-enhancing properties, as are nuts and pumpkin seeds, which are rich in magnesium. Magnesium is thought to in alleviate symptoms of depression.

Ms Carmody says there is little education on food and moods, and clients are often surprised at how damaging sugar is to their health.

“There is a tendency for people on anti-depressants to crave sugar, so you have to be aware of that. I encourage people to cut out sugar and use alternatives, such as raw cacao. You have to start the day organised with your food.

“If you are cutting out the sugar, you need to have porridge or eggs for your breakfast. You don’t have to buy anything fancy. Go in and buy a few prawns for dinners. Always have the dry foods in that you need. Have a couple of simple recipes.”

Mary stresses that sugar “totally affects mood.” Women crave sugar products during their menstrual cycle. She says anyone hoping to eliminate sugar needs to adopt a “back-to-basics approach.”

How excessive sugar hurts our physical and mental health

“It’s all about small changes. You don’t have to change everything. Have a food diary. Instead of chocolate with your tea mid-morning, have an apple or a pear or berries. Nuts are fabulous. Have a few almonds. Chew everything well. People who are anxious or depressed are often not mindful of their eating. Your digestive system switches off when you eat rubbish.”

British psychiatric researcher, Malcolm Peet, has conducted analysis of the relationship between diet and mental illness.

He found a strong link between high sugar consumption and the risk of both schizophrenia and depression. Dr Peet says refined-sugar intake can be toxic to mental health.

Dr Peet indicated that sugar suppresses activity of BDNF, a key growth hormone in the brain. This hormone promotes the health and maintenance of neurons in the brain. It plays a vital role in memory function, by triggering the growth of new connections between neurons. BDNF levels are critically low in both depression and and schizophrenia. Dr Peet also found evidence from animal models that low BDNF can trigger depression.

Professor Ivan Perry, of the Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, University College Cork, says it is an “interesting area.” However, he stresses that scientifically it can be quite difficult to establish a definitive cause and effect between sugar consumption and moods/depression.

How excessive sugar hurts our physical and mental health

“It is not easy to measure and record changes in mood after certain foods. What I would say is that if people are depressed or low, it doesn’t assist them in making good food choices. If you are in a low mood, anxious or depressed, you are less likely to eat a healthy diet.” He says what is unquestioned is that a healthy diet decreases our risk of developing dementia or cognitive difficulties later in life.

Professor Perry says that the introduction of a sugar tax should be a “no-brainer. I was encouraged to hear Finance Minister Michael Noonan on the radio, over the weekend, saying that he wasn’t against the introduction of a sugar tax. Up to now, the assumption was that the Department of Finance was blocking it. In the context of the election, if we have the two main parties coming out saying they would introduce a sugar tax ….it would be great. It’s encouraging, so far. It (sugar) has a huge impact on health.”


CASE STUDY: Mary McEvoy cut out sugar and no longer needs to binge


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