We all have had that ‘sugar crash.’ Most of us had our first experience with this phenomenon in our childhood and have not forgotten it. A sudden rush of activity and awareness followed by a total collapse in energy as mood as well. For some a sugar crash could be a once in a while event but for others it can become common. This pattern can become an addictive cycle of ups and downs just like any other addictive sequence. When feelings of sadness and hopelessness last for days or weeks this begins to seem more like symptoms of depression. It’s not hard to believe that sugar and depression have a close correlation. The connection between sugar and depression has been known for a long time, but the mechanism behind this relationship has not always been so well understood.
Sugar in the diet affects the body in numerous ways but when talking about depression it of course comes down to the brain. The brain cells need more energy than the other cells in your body but not only that, they use fat for their energy source. The brain, as well as the rest of the body, likes to have a steady, not sporadic delivery of energy to its cells. For this reason sporadic changes in blood sugar can upset many organs in the body, the brain being the most noticeable when out of balance.
Dopamine and Serotonin are the two culprits behind the ‘sugar rush.’ These two neurotransmitters act as endorphins and are released as blood sugar rises. It is because of this action that you feel an elevated mood but it does not last all that long. When a sudden elevation of mood is followed by a depression of mood, that person is likely going to prefer the elevated mood and possibly reach for that sugar once again.
We are rewarded for eating sugar by getting a rush of endorphins to make us feel good and want more sugar. Sugar is essentially overworking the brains reward system. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense for our body to be so self-destructive. The reason why this happens the way it does is a primal instinct.
Sugar was for a long time (forever) locked up within the fibrous walls of fruit and almost scarce in comparison to the supply of sugar we have available in modern times. Quick energy was crucial for our very active ancestors and although this reward for its consumption still exists the need is not the same. To simplify this, our genes simply do not know that we are able to acquire sugar so easily but we still have this, basically self-destructive mechanism and this is why sugar is such a big problem for many of us. There is also a strong link between sugar and inflammation, and inflammation is strongly associated with depression.
There may not be an exact answer for this but it really doesn’t matter, so here’s the scoop: sugar causes the release of dopamine in the brain, and so do many recreational drugs. Both sugar and drugs can cause a dependency for this reason. Both sugar and recreational drugs can lead to withdrawals when removed. So, the similarities are very obvious and whether sugar is exactly as addictive as cocaine doesn’t really matter. The truth is that they definitely both cause dependency. Unlike cocaine however, sugar has a substitute food item that can replace it, fresh fruit. When sugar is removed or at least dramatically reduced, energy levels and mood should increase as fatigue and cravings diminish as Dopamine stabilizes in the body once again. This is a worthwhile reward in the short term. As for the long term benefits of cutting back on sugar, well they are so important they cannot even be calculated.