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The link between sugar and mental illnesses

By Faith Kariuki Biongo | June 3rd 2018
Regular consumption of meals high in sugar can affect your brain increasing your risk of developing mental illnesses and mood disorders like depression.

We all know how diet affects your physical health, but did you know that it can have lasting effects on your mental health too?  Regular consumption of meals high in sugar can affect your brain increasing your risk of developing mental illnesses and mood disorders like depression.

1. Inflammation

Inflammation is a natural process which helps the body protect itself from damage, and also aids in the healing process. Regular consumption of refined carbohydrates and added sugars triggers inflammatory responses that can cause inflammation in the brain and lead to depression.


2. Stress responses

After consumption of a high sugar meal one can become hypoglycaemic, a condition characterised by very low blood sugar levels. Hypoglycaemia occurs when too much insulin is produced following a high sugar meal. Insulin is the hormone that regulates blood sugar. This in turn causes the sugar circulating in the body to drop to levels lower than normal. Hypoglycaemia can trigger several stress responses including confusion, irritability, insomnia, anxiety and depression.

High insulin levels can also cause an imbalance of hormone oestrogen and progesterone. A balance of these two hormones is important in keeping us happy and calm.


3. Obesity and depression

High consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugar is associated with excess body weight and obesity. Overweight and obese people are more likely than people with a healthy weight to suffer depression. Obesity can cause poor self-image, low self esteem and social isolation, all known contributors of depression.


4. High release of dopamine

Due to the powerful impact sugar has on mesolimbic dopamine system -- the brain’s reward system -- sweet foods are highly desirable. Just like drugs, sugar can activate this reward system causing release of dopamine, a chemical that controls the brains reward and pleasure centre making you crave for more sugar because it makes you feel good. Short term surges in dopamine can be pleasurable, but high concentrations can cause depression and attention deficit disorder.


5. Increases the risk of mental illnesses

Brain derived neurotrophic factor is a protein that promotes survival of nerve cells and cognitive function. Low levels of this factor is associated with psychiatric and neuro-degenerative disorders. A diet rich in fats and refined sugar is associated with a low brain derived neurotrophic factor increasing the risk of psychiatric disorders and depression.


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