High-sugar diets and men’s mental health

What’s the link?


Dr. Jen Tan
@AVogelUK


10 August 2017

Men’s mental health

It can sometimes be difficult to assess just how much men are affected by mental health disorders – men are typically less likely to see a doctor about health problems in general, and this is especially true when regarding mental health. This means that women are often more likely to be diagnosed with mental health issues like depression and anxiety than men, but this is not to say that men suffer any less. 

For example, we do know that around 75% of suicide cases involve men, so mental health is clearly a big issue. Therefore, determining the factors that could be contributing to depression and other mental health disorders is vital.

We know that women’s mental health can be affected by hormonal changes like PMS and the menopause, but what can affect men’s mental health? Well, as it turns out, sugar!

How is sugar related to depression in men?

When we talk about sugar, we’re generally talking about free sugar and refined sugar – the types that are high in sucrose and often added to cakes, sweet treats and fizzy drinks– rather than natural fruit sugars which are high in fructose.

We know that sugar has a big impact on our physical bodies, increasing our risk of developing problems like diabetes and heart disease, but a recent study found that men who eat a high-sugar diet have an increased risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

The long-term study, involving 5000 men and 2000 women, was conducted between 1983 and 2013 and found that men who consumed more than 67g of sugar a day were 23% more likely to develop mental disorders than those consuming less than 35g a day.

Strangely enough, the study found no link between sugar intake and mental health in women. 

Why can sugar affect our mental health?

People often forget how closely linked the mind and body are. Think about, for example, how feeling nervous before a flight, interview or exam can often cause diarrhoea and sweating.

But this works the other way too – changes in the physical body can often go on to affect the mind. We know that sugar is particularly damaging to the body, causing problems like diabetes, weight gain and even cardiovascular problems, so it’s important to think about what knock-on effects this could have on mental health.

Fatigued nervous system

Where complex carbohydrates take a long time for the body to break down, sugar enters your system in a form that is ready to use straight away. This causes a sudden spike of energy, followed by a dip. The pancreas needs to work overtime to produce extra insulin to cope with all this extra sugar, and the resulting dip in energy causes the adrenal glands to panic and release  cortisol – a stress hormone which can trigger increased heart rate and anxiety. Over time this constant rising and falling of sugar levels can fatigue these organs, unbalancing your whole nervous system, and leaving you feeling on-edge and vulnerable to draining mood swings. 

Depletion of magnesium

Sugar is infamous for having little nutritional value, but did you know it can actually deplete the minerals already in your body too? Magnesium is a vital nutrient that sugar can deplete. This mineral helps muscles to relax, so it’s great for muscle pain and tension. However, it is also important for cognitive function and the nervous system. It is thought that magnesium can stimulate the GABA receptors in our brain, helping us feel calm and relaxed – in fact, some common symptoms of magnesium deficiency include stress and anxiety.

Chronic deficiency in magnesium could therefore contribute to the development of disorders such as anxiety and even depression.

Depletion of B vitamins 

B vitamins are also really important for mental health, and can be depleted by sugar intake. They are most famous for their role in metabolising food, so without B vitamins you are unlikely to absorb all the nutrients from your diet, no matter how healthily you’re eating. Certain B vitamins also have additional functions: B6, for example, helps to synthesise neurotransmitters in the brain which help to control mood, while B12 is important for cognitive function, the nervous system and psychological function.

Inflammation

Sugar can also cause inflammation in the body, which is why we don’t recommend eating too much sugar if you suffer from inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and BPH (enlarged prostate). However, inflammation is also thought to be connected to depression. The kind of inflammation at fault is low-grade, long-term inflammation that occurs at a level that is hard to detect using traditional tests – we call this sub-clinical inflammation. This means that a long-term diet full of sugar could be causing low-grade inflammation for years and years without being noticed.

Poor gut bacteria

Your friendly gut bacteria don’t like sugar at all – however, your unfriendly bacteria and yeasts do! If your friendly gut bacteria begin to die off then your whole digestive system will suffer, meaning you’ll struggle to digest food properly. This means that all the great nutrients found in the healthy foods you are eating won’t be absorbed! The brain needs nourishing just like any other organ, so this will not be good for your mental health as well as your physical health. 

Poor gut bacteria can also have knock-on effects, such as wind, constipation, bloating and even problems like IBS. This can definitely contribute to low mood, but can also make you anxious about things like travelling or eating out in case you get digestive upset. 

Poor heart health and circulation

When excess sugar can’t be used by the body, it is instead stored as fat, or more specifically as triglycerides. This is the type of fat guilty of causing heart problems and damaging arteries. This reduces overall blood flow and circulation in your body, which contributes to lethargy and fatigue, which can contribute to or exacerbate feelings of low mood. Reduced blood flow to your brain will also not be good for your mental health!

Why isn’t there a link between sugar and depression in women?

As noted, the study didn’t find any significant correlation between sugar intake and depression in women, so why could this be? 

This is a difficult question to answer, and without more research it is hard to say! We do know that women and men metabolise foods differently so this could certainly be a contributing factor. For example, women break down carbohydrates slower than men, which could, to some extent, reduce the sudden increase and crash of sugar levels.

The hormonal differences between men and women could also be taken into consideration, since this is one of the biggest differences between the two sexes. High-sugar diets are thought to imbalance hormones in women, contributing to worsening PMS symptoms, so it’s clear that women are not immune to the effects of sugar.

How to reduce your sugar intake

Sugar is a highly addictive substance, so reducing your sugar intake can be surprisingly challenging! In fact, one study found that when rats were given the choice between sugar or cocaine, the large majority chose sugar

However, there are a few ways you can slowly work to reduce your sugar intake.

Firstly, make sure that you eat good-sized, regular meals, packed with lots of complex carbohydrates – this includes anything ‘whole’, such as wholewheat pasta, brown rice and wholemeal bread, as well as starchy vegetables like sweet potato and parsnip. Make sure to include some healthy sources of protein, such as good-quality, organic meat, or pulses such as chickpeas, kidney beans and nuts. Basically, these changes will keep you fuller for longer, helping to prevent a drop in sugar levels that triggers cravings.

Next, opt for low-sugar snack alternatives for when you do need a snack between meals. These could include nuts and seeds, or something like a healthy energy ball, protein bar or low-sugar chocolate. You can even make snacks yourself using natural sweeteners like dates or a little agave syrup. I find that cinnamon works well as a sugar replacement – it’s naturally a little sweet, and a small amount can give a strong flavour that reduces the need for extra sugar.

Keep an eye out for surprising sources of sugar – those cereal bars you’re munching on are probably packed full of the stuff! Other surprising sources include cereal (even the ‘healthy’ stuff like corn flakes!), ketchup, baked beans and flavoured water. Anything low-fat can also contain extra sugar – after all, they have to replace the fat with something!

The good news is that as you cut back on sugar, the sugar receptors on your tongue wake up again and become more sensitive to sweetness, so after a few weeks your tea with one teaspoon of sugar will taste the same as two. In fact, you might be surprised at how sickly-sweet some of the foods and drinks you used to enjoy now taste!

Are there any supplements or remedies that can help with sugar levels?

There isn’t really any remedy that can replace the need to reduce your sugar, but there are a couple that can give you some extra support while you’re in the process of cutting back.

A great one to include is chromium, as this can help support the action of insulin in regulating blood sugar levels. 

Cinnamon is also thought to work in a similar way so this is definitely a good one to add to baking recipes or even breakfast – a teaspoon with porridge is really tasty!

If you’ve been eating a high-sugar diet for a long time then your gut bacteria will likely have suffered. Our Molkosan Digestion contains L+ lactic acid which helps to create a healthy environment for your gut bacteria to thrive, helping to improve overall metabolism. You could also include a probiotic to give your gut bacteria an extra boost.

Remedies for mental wellbeing

If you’re looking for a bit of extra support for your mental wellbeing, then herbal remedies can be a big help.

For low mood we recommend St John’s Wort – but remember that if you suspect you have depression the best thing to do is see your doctor!

For mild stress and anxiety you can try Stress Relief Daytime or AvenaCalm. Again, if anxiety becomes difficult to manage and starts affecting your day-to-day life then make sure to consult your doctor.

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