Being addictive, sugar can lead to cravings and be a major contributor to anxiety disorders and mood disorders like depression. Learn what you can do.
We come into this world hardwired to like things that taste sweet.
To a baby, sweetness means mother’s milk.
Preferring sweets is a survival mechanism our ancestors developed to protect them from toxic foods.
If you’re feeling stressed out, anxious or depressed, you may crave sweets and find that they make you feel better.
But in the long run, eating sugar stimulates further cravings and contributes to anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders.
Let’s take a look at the complicated relationship between sugar and your mental health.
Along the way, you’ll find out how sugar actually affects your brain and how this keeps you coming back for more.
Glucose — The Brain’s Main Energy Source
To understand how sugar (sucrose) impacts you, we need to take a look at its two components, glucose and fructose.
While glucose and fructose are structurally very similar, they behave differently in the body.
Glucose is a simple sugar molecule that’s a building block of mainly plant-based complex carbohydrates such as those found in whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
It is essential to life.
It circulates in your blood and provides energy to all of your cells especially your brain cells which use a disproportionate amount of energy compared to other cells. (1)
And since brain cells can’t store energy, they need a steady supply of glucose.
While your liver can break down stored fat to produce ketones to feed the brain in a pinch, most people’s brains run on glucose most of the time.
Why Added Fructose Is a Problem
Fructose is another simple sugar naturally found in fruit and sweet vegetables like carrots, beets and yams. (2)
Virtually every cell in the body can metabolize glucose for energy, but only liver cells can handle fructose. (3)
Refined sugars like white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and even “healthier” sweeteners like honey and maple syrup are roughly half glucose and half fructose.
A diet high in added fructose raises blood fructose levels — and this is a health disaster.
It increases the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. (6)
And it contributes to chronic inflammation, an underlying cause of many health conditions of both the body and the brain.
Sugar and Depression
The evidence is clear.
You may turn to sugar when you’re feeling blue.
It may make you feel better temporarily, but, in fact, sugar fuels your depression.
Here are the main ways sugar contributes to depression.
Sugar Increases Serotonin
Most antidepressant medications work by increasing brain levels of the “happiness” neurotransmitter serotonin.
When you’re feeling down and indulge in foods with a high sugar content, you are actually self-medicating.
Eating refined sugars, white flour, and other processed carbohydrates gives you the fastest serotonin boost. (9)
But this lift is short-lived, lasting only an hour or two before you crash.
A smarter long-term strategy for increasing serotonin is to eat healthy carbohydrates.
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Oddly, when carbs and protein are eaten together, the presence of protein blocks serotonin synthesis. (10)
But you can eat carbs on their own without protein to increase serotonin naturally.
Learn exactly how to strategically eat carbs to curb depression in our article on increasing serotonin with food.
Sugar Increases Brain Inflammation
The medical consensus is that depression is caused by a lack of two feel-good brain chemicals, mainly serotonin and sometimes dopamine.
Millions of people are prescribed antidepressants based on this model of depression.
However, another promising theory is emerging — the “cytokine model of depression.” (11)
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This foundation of this theory is that brain inflammation is the root cause of depression.
Cytokines are immune system messengers that regulate inflammation.
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Currently, the most popular antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which are thought to work by increasing serotonin levels.
But now there’s evidence that SSRIs are anti-inflammatory.
So it’s quite possible that being anti-inflammatory, not serotonin-boosting, is the property responsible for their antidepressant effect. (15)
Sugar Suppresses a Natural Antidepressant
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein critical for brain health.
BDNF stimulates the formation of new brain cells and protects the brain from neurodegenerative diseases. (16)
It also acts like a natural antidepressant. (17)
Lower levels of BDNF are associated with numerous brain-related conditions including depression, OCD, schizophrenia, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. (20)
Sugar and Anxiety
Just as you may eat sugar to lighten your mood, you may also eat it to relax when you are feeling stressed or anxious.
Stress also affects food preferences, making you crave sugar, fat or both.
That’s why no one craves a big bowl of broccoli when they’re stressed out!
The Hypoglycemia-Anxiety Connection
Hypoglycemia occurs when your blood sugar level drops too low.
The symptoms of anxiety and hypoglycemia are so similar that doctors have been misdiagnosing hypoglycemia as anxiety for decades. (25)
Common symptoms of both include mood swings, brain fog, nervousness, restlessness, irritability, inability to concentrate, and crying spells.
A low blood sugar attack can leave you feeling jittery, sweating, heart pounding, and confused — very much like an anxiety attack.
This occurs when the symptoms of low blood sugar are present even though your actual blood sugar level is in the normal range.
The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster
Foods with a high glycemic index like sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or wheat cause blood sugar levels to spike.
Your body responds by making insulin which causes your blood sugar level to drop.
When your brain doesn’t get the fuel it needs, your adrenal glands kick in to release epinephrine and cortisol.
This causes stored sugar to be released to bring your blood sugar level back to normal. (28)
But these stress hormones are also released when you are in “fight or flight” mode and can ramp up anxiety. (29)
If you suspect your anxiety is related to hypoglycemia, it’s critical that you limit your intake of all refined carbohydrates and eat protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates instead.
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And consider taking a magnesium supplement.
Taking 340 mg of magnesium per day can stabilize blood sugar in people with hypoglycemia. (30)
Why You Crave Sugar and What You Can Do About It
Knowing that sugar contributes to anxiety and depression won’t stop you from craving sugar.
In a weird way, your brain doesn’t “care” where the glucose comes from — healthy or unhealthy sources — as long as it gets enough.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the main cause of sugar cravings is sugar!
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White sugar is so highly refined that its effects on the brain are more drug-like than food-like. (31)
Sugar meets all of the criteria of an additive substance.
The lure of sugar is so strong that it’s been compared to hardcore drugs.
Let’s take a look at how sugar hijacks your brain to make you want more.
Sugar, Dopamine, and the Pleasure-Reward System
Throughout most of human history, finding enough food was a struggle and sweet foods were scarce.
So when our ancestors found a patch of wild berries or an empty beehive, it was a rare sweet treat!
And this fortunate find gave them a nice boost of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
It gives you that “I want more!” and “Let’s do this again!” feeling when you experience something enjoyable.
Sugar Cravings from Food Reactions
You may also experience sugar cravings if you eat foods to which you are allergic or sensitive.
The most likely culprits for food allergies are dairy, eggs, seafood, wheat, soy, and nuts. (34)
You don’t have to be truly allergic for a food to make you crave sugar.
You may simply be intolerant to a certain food.
Reasons for food intolerances include lactose intolerance, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), and enzyme deficiencies. (35)
Sugar Cravings from Artificial Sweeteners
By changing your intestinal microbiome they also cause your blood sugar level to vary more than normal. (39)
When Sugar Cravings Are a Cry for Nutrients
Sugar cravings can be a signal that your body is starving for nutrients.
You may need more macronutrients like fat or protein or you may be missing important micronutrients like the B complex vitamins, vitamin D or omega-3 essential fatty acids. (40)
Hormonal-Based Sugar Cravings
PMS, menopause and pregnancy all have women craving sweets.
A whopping 97% of all women report sugar cravings compared to 68% of men. (41)
Men, on the other hand, more often crave meat, and turn to alcohol and cigarettes when stressed, anxious or depressed.
Sugar Meets the Criteria of an Addictive Substance
Sugar addiction is not yet recognized as a psychological disorder by the American Psychiatric Association or the World Health Organization.
But the latest research supports that sugar addiction is real. (42)
Sugar exhibits all the hallmarks of an addictive substance:
- You can’t eat sugar in moderation.
- You often have more than you planned.
- You consume mindlessly, not really enjoying it.
- You eat it to the point of feeling unwell.
- You think about sugar even when you are full.
- You feel guilty after eating but immediately want more anyway.
- You feel out of control.
- You lie about or hide your habit from others.
Do any of these sugar addiction symptoms sound familiar?
Some research indicates that sugar may be as addictive as heroin and cocaine! (43)
The average American eats their weight in sugar every year. (44)
If you are among them, you may well have a sugar addiction.
Processed Food Is Intentionally Addictive
And if all that isn’t enough, there is an insidious scheme to get you hooked on sugar.
Investigative journalist Michael Moss revealed in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us that food manufacturers employ teams of scientists to find the perfect balance of sugar, fat, and salt called the “bliss point” to make their products intentionally addictive. (45)
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These processed foods trigger a flood of dopamine.
This explains why you may find yourself staring at the bottom of an empty cookie jar when you vowed you’d have only one or two.
7 Steps for Quitting Sugar
Here are 7 ways to reduce sugar cravings and get a handle on anxiety or depression.
1. Take a Food Inventory
Take inventory of all the foods you regularly eat to ferret out hidden sources of sugar.
Then get any foods that contain sugars out of the house so they won’t tempt you.
This won’t be easy!
You are up against food manufacturers that are intentionally trying to hook you on their products.
They add sugar to a whopping 74% of processed foods. (46)
They give millions of dollars in funding to researchers to “encourage” them to downplay the link between sugar, obesity and disease. (47)
They use names like cane sugar, raw sugar, honey, agave nectar, and fruit juice concentrate to give the impression that you’re eating “healthy.”
According to SugarScience.org, there are over 60 alternative names for added sugar.
Here are some you might come across:
- agave nectar
- barley malt
- beet sugar
- brown sugar
- buttered syrup
- cane juice, juice crystals or sugar
- carob syrup
- coconut sugar
- confectioner’s or powdered sugar
- corn sugar, syrup or sweetener
- corn sweetener
- crystalline fructose
- date sugar
- fruit juice or fruit juice concentrate
- glucose or glucose solids
- golden sugar or syrup
- grape sugar
- high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- invert sugar
- malt syrup
- maple syrup or sugar
- raw sugar
- refiner’s syrup
- rice syrup
- sorghum syrup
- turbinado sugar
Any food item that comes in a box, can, bottle or package, even if you buy it at a health food store, is suspect.
So read all food labels carefully.
2. Switch to Healthy Sweeteners
Unfortunately, some sweeteners reported to be healthy aren’t any better than white sugar.
Agave nectar, which once looked very promising as a healthier sweetener, turns out to be higher in fructose than white sugar at about 85%. (48)
Maple syrup is basically sucrose with some tasty phytochemicals that give it its unique flavor.
Honey is equal parts fructose and glucose (as is white sugar), but does have the benefit of containing trace enzymes, minerals, amino acids, and B vitamins as well as having anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antiviral, and antiseptic properties. (49)
So you can use it sparingly provided you aren’t a full-blown sugar addict.
My favorite healthy natural sugar alternative is stevia.
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It comes from the leaves of an herb (Stevia rebaudiana) and derives its flavor from a sweet but non-caloric protein.
It’s 200 times sweeter than sugar, but doesn’t increase blood sugar or create an insulin spike.
Read labels carefully when buying stevia since, disappointingly, some products also contain sugar.
Three healthy all-stevia brands are SweetLeaf Stevia, Pure Via, and Stevia in the Raw.
Another lesser known natural sweetener is luo han guo or monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii).
Monk fruit is new to most Americans, but this small subtropical melon has been cultivated in Asia for hundreds of years.
Powdered monk fruit is 200 times sweeter than sugar and can be found under the brand names Monk Fruit In The Raw and PureLo.
3. Create a Sugar-Free Meal Plan
Now you need to replace foods that contain added sugar with healthier versions.
Especially for the first week or so of your sugar detox, create a meal plan and stick to it.
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This will help keep you from straying when cravings hit.
Be sure to eat more protein and healthy fats like nuts, nut butters, avocados, coconut oil and olive oil.
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We’ve compiled 50 delicious brain-healthy recipes for breakfasts, main courses, side dishes and desserts, all sugar-free.
And since many people find snacks to be their downfall, we’ve also got 25 brain-healthy snacks ideas for you.
These kinds of foods will keep you full and satisfied and keep sugar cravings to a minimum.
4. Avoid Wheat
I can hear you groan. Now I’m asking you to give up one more food you love!
But giving up wheat will make giving up sugar easier.
This means a breakfast of whole wheat toast raises your blood sugar more than a candy bar!
Restricting wheat was the single most effective thing I did to reduce my sugar cravings.
5. Switch to Healthy Drinks
Sugary drinks are one of the worst things for your health.
The American Heart Association reports that 180,000 annual deaths worldwide are caused by sugary beverages. (52)
Sugary drinks deposit fat right around your waist.
This kind of fat, also known as visceral fat, is particularly unhealthy and causes inflammation. (53)
And diet sodas are no better.
Drink water, natural mineral water, herbal teas, or our favorite superstar beverages, green tea, yerba mate or matcha.
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Green tea is particularly helpful when you’re weaning off sugar since it contains l-theanine which has a calming effect.
If you usually consume caffeine, be mindful of your caffeine intake.
Many sodas, coffee drinks, and energy drinks that you may be giving up are loaded with caffeine.
While you are kicking sugar is not the time to inadvertently quit caffeine as well unless you are determined to get all your suffering over at once.
6. Take L-Glutamine for Sugar Cravings
If you need a little extra help, there are supplements that diminish sugar cravings.
L-glutamine is an excellent supplement to start with.
It helps control sugar cravings, stabilizes blood sugar levels, and, as an added bonus, improves mental clarity.
This amino acid is particularly helpful for vegetarians who are often deficient in it. (57)
If glutamine doesn’t do the trick, there are many other sugar-busting supplements you can try such as tryptophan, magnesium, fish oil, and resveratrol.
We discuss more supplements to reduce sugar cravings in our article on fighting carbohydrate cravings.
7. Harness the Power of Your Brain
Cravings and addictions start in the brain.
So why not put the power of your mind to work for you?
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There are a wide variety of mind-body healing techniques that can be used to minimize cravings, reduce withdrawal symptoms, and ease the stress of transition.
These include meditation, guided imagery, self-hypnosis, autogenic training and personal biofeedback.
Sugar Detox: What to Expect
During your sugar detox you may experience some withdrawal symptoms.
How severe your symptoms will be depends on the amount of sugar you consume, how long you’ve been a sugarholic, and your unique physiology.
Typical worst case scenarios can include flu-like symptoms, mood swings, headache and severe fatigue.
Most people are over the hump in about three days.
Before you know it, you’ll be on the other side wishing you’d broken the chains of sugar addiction sooner.
How Sugar Affects the Brain: The Bottom Line
We are hardwired to love sweetness in our diet but, much to the detriment of our mental health, the modern diet contains an overabundance of sugar.
The glucose and fructose found in fruits and vegetables are not hazardous to your health.
But the refined sugars ubiquitous in processed foods are and significantly contribute to depression and anxiety.
Sugar meets the criteria for being an addictive substance so, unsurprisingly, it can cause intense cravings.
The solution is simple but not easy.
Trade in processed foods and refined sugars for real, whole foods that don’t contain added sweeteners.