Indulging in a sweet treat every so often isn’t a terrible thing. Sometimes we all need a little pick-me-up, and it’s important to treat yourself and enjoy special occasions to the fullest. However, refined sugars may not be the mood boosters we often think they are. In fact, research suggests that consuming substantial amounts of processed sugar can increase anxiety, dampen your mood, and make you feel downright irritable.
Why? According to Meghan O’Hara, Registered Dietician, certified holistic health coach, and owner of True Nourishment, it has to do with the mind-gut connection, as well as your relationship with food. “There are several different mechanisms, some physiological and some emotional, that could be at play when eating added sugars,” she tells First for Women.
The Physical Link Between Refined Sugars and Mood
When you eat foods high in refined sugars, O’Hara says the gut and the brain actually “talk” about it. “When we eat added sugars, they feed bacteria in our gut,” she says. “If we have an overgrowth of opportunistic – read, unhelpful – bacteria, it can be fueling mood issues … Scientists have found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, all of which play a key role in mood regulation.” (GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between your brain’s nerve cells, and low levels of GABA have been linked with mood disorders.)
O’Hara points to a study published in PLOS Pathogens, which argues that we should view the microbiome in our gut as a system of chemical messaging. In other words, the gut constantly sends signals to the brain, which influences our behavior.
“Certain [micro] organisms [in the gut] also affect how people metabolize these compounds, effectively regulating the amount of these neurotransmitters that circulates in the blood in brain,” O’Hara adds. “This can affect our mood in big ways! Gut bacteria may also generate other neuroactive chemicals – including one called butyrate – that have been linked to reduced anxiety and depression.”
O’Hara notes that the vagus nerve, or the nerve that carries signals from the digestive system to the brain, plays a huge role in our mood. “There has been research to show that some microbes can activate the vagus nerve, the main line of communication between the gut and the brain,” she says. “This vagus nerve also has an important role in modulating our nervous system responses, which are responsible for feeling a sense of threat.” Indeed, a study she references from PNAS suggests that a specific strain of bacteria (known as Lactobacillus) regulates emotional behavior by activating the vagus nerve.
“In addition, the microbiome is intertwined with the immune system, which itself influences mood and behavior,” she concludes, referring to an article from Frontiers in Microbiology.
Does how you feel about your food cause anxiety?
There is another vital component O’Hara doesn’t want to leave out: your relationship with food. If you feel guilty for eating refined sugars, you’re going to feel terrible.
“There are real effects that happen based on the beliefs we carry about eating,” she says. “Some of us carry strong judgments about eating ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. If we believe we are eating ‘bad’ foods when eating added sugars, that alone can lead to feelings of worry, guilt, and shame. And when we have a hard time being with those feelings, they can also show up as irritability, sadness, or anger towards others.”
So, it’s important to form a healthy relationship with food and allow yourself to eat treats. But how do you do that without experiencing the anxiety and irritability caused by the gut-brain connection?
“I recommend first people get really clear on why they’re cutting out added sugars and processed carbs,” O’Hara says. “Is this for a medical reason, or is it coming from a place of self-judgment and wanting to ‘fix’ someone’s body image? Sometimes it can be both. But from my perspective, both pieces need to be addressed to have a healthy relationship with food and their body.
“After getting clear on the ‘why,’ I recommended adding in fruits and sweeter vegetables to help transition from added sugars and processed carbs. Psychologically, it can be extremely helpful to focus on what is being added in, instead of what is to be avoided. This is also a process that takes time. Don’t expect a miracle overnight, but start [the] process of adding alternatives and finding what you like. We get a completely new set of taste buds every three weeks, so at first you might notice the difference in sweetness and miss the added sugars and processed carbs. But within a month, most people find the new substitutes delicious, and they feel much better!”
With a positive, step-by-step approach, you can gradually reduce your intake of processed sugar and improve your health – physically and mentally.