Too much sugar is infamous for increasing digits on the weighing scale and adding inches to one's waistline, in addition to hurtling us towards more serious lifestyle diseases like obesity and diabetes. But what about the impact of sugar on mental health? Several studies have shown that long-term consumption of excess sugar can have an effect on one’s mood, learning and quality of life.
What is a sugar rush?
There's no denying that sugar is an important part of a healthy and balanced diet. It is a form of carbohydrate and an important source of energy for the body. But an excess of sugar leads to what is popularly called a 'sugar rush'. Sugar is known to be an instant energy booster, too much of it can lead to a giddy feeling, a rush that lasts anywhere between 15 to 40 minutes.
According to studies published by researchers at Princeton University, USA, the high we feel from consuming sugar-rich foods can make us crave more sugar. Consumption of excess sugar leads to a high followed by a rapid slump in a few hours. This feeling is common to most of us who have given in and reached out for that extra piece of kaju katli or gooey chocolate cake. In 2008, scientists from Princeton University found that sugar can be an addictive substance. They conducted experiments that demonstrated how sugar wielded its power over the brains of lab animals and concluded that it was similar to many drugs of abuse. Moreover, people can experience symptoms of withdrawal when they go without sugar, like a drug user, after they stop consumption.
Your body on sugar
When you eat sugar, the hormone insulin gets to work. Insulin extracts glucose, the type of sugar the body uses for energy, from the foods we eat, and stores it in the liver for future use. Insulin also helps glucose travel to cells through the bloodstream and regulates blood sugar levels. But when you have too much sugar, "glucose - and the insulin released to counter glucose - can cause fatigue, trouble thinking, blurry vision and general ill feelings," states an article published by CalmClinic.
Citing research published by the US National Library of Medicine, Psychology Today says, "Heavy sugar consumption has been tied to an increased risk of depression and worse outcomes in individuals with schizophrenia." Another research published by the US National Library of Medicine found that a diet high in refined sugar suppresses the activity of BDNF, a protein that is active in the brain areas vital to learning, memory and thinking. BDNF activity is anyway low in individuals with depression and schizophrenia.
While sugar intake does not 'cause' anxiety, studies have established a link between the two. Excess sugar can worsen the symptoms of anxiety and hamper the body's ability to cope with stress. Research has also revealed that excess sugar intake affects the cognitive functioning of children and older adults.
Recognise where sugar hides
Sugar is all around us. While consciously deciding to cut down on one's sugar intake is a great start, it is also important to recognise where sugar tends to hide. Manufacturers of food items are adept at masking sugar by using other names. In 2013, Prevention listed 57 names and aliases of sugar you will find in food labels.
Apart from obvious ones like brown sugar, buttercream, cane sugar, corn sweetener, demerara sugar, watch out for words like agave, barley malt, brown rice syrup, dextran, maltose and galactose. High levels of sugar have also been found in baby foods and fruit juices.
The great Indian sugar rush
India’s festive season, beginning with Ganesh Chaturthi around August-September to New Year's Eve in December, with Navratri, Dussehra, Diwali and Christmas falling in between, brings along a four-month uninterrupted supply of reasons to indulge in sweets. With New Year's Day around the corner, cutting down on sugar, to redeem the festive sweets indulgence, takes the top slot on most resolution lists. But soon after, from January to March, follow winter specials and sweets that are part of harvest festivals.
A sweet is a significant part of most festivals and celebrations, not only in India but across the globe. A birthday or wedding is incomplete without a cake taking centre stage. Meanwhile, modak is to Ganesh Chaturthi what kaju katli is to Diwali, plum cake is to Christmas what kheer is to Eid. A celebratory sweet every now and then didn't hurt anyone, after all, munh meetha karna is a part of the country's tradition. But too much of anything can't be good and it's the same with sugar.
Dr Rizwana Nulwala is a Mumbai-based practising psychotherapist at Krizalyz Counselling and Mental Health Services.
Disclaimer: Readers are recommended to avoid self-diagnosis and to consult a professional counsellor/medical doctor in case of doubt.