The holiday season is often full of sweet treats and other sugary foods, but you may want to avoid them to protect your health, according to a new study from the University of Kansas. People who are prone to depression may experience a lapse in their mental health that is ultimately triggered by eating too much sugary during the winter months when other negative factors are already present.
Eating too much sugar increases inflammation and reduces one’s overall wellbeing, ultimately having a negative effect on one’s mood, according to the researchers. This is particularly problematic during the winter months when a small percentage of the population experiences or is at heightened risk of experiencing clinical depression due to the changes in sunlight.
When sunlight decreases, one’s circadian rhythm is altered, potentially resulting in problems with getting adequate levels of sleep. Poor sleep quality can itself also increase one’s odds of entering a depressed state…and, unfortunately, can also trigger cravings for sugar. Eating sugar has a rapid and short-lived positive effect on mood, driving many people to eat too many sweet treats.
The excess sugar and its negative effects on inflammation and mood combined with winter’s sleep disruption may end up being the tipping point that pushes some people into clinical depression. Combining the carb cravings with the abundance of sweet foods that exist during the holiday season may be too much for some people to resist, resulting in what the researchers call a perfect storm.
In fact, one researcher notes that excessive sugar may be harmful to one’s physical and mental health in the same way as drinking a bit too much alcohol.
KU associate professor of clinical psychology Stephen Ilardi explained:
We have pretty good evidence that one alcoholic drink a day is safe, and it might have a beneficial effect for some people. Alcohol is basically pure calories, pure energy, non-nutritive and super toxic at high doses. Sugars are very similar. We’re learning when it comes to depression, people who optimize their diet should provide all the nutrients the brain needs and mostly avoid these potential toxins.
Around half of the people who suffer from depression also have high levels of systemic inflammation. Hormones resulting from these inflamed states can affect the brain in a way that triggers severe depression. The study notes that many ‘bad’ gut bacteria strains thrive on refined sugars and these same bacteria, in addition to triggering inflammation, produce chemicals that drive depression and anxiety.
Avoiding these potential negative effects is fairly simple: avoid foods that have added sugars. The researchers recommend diets that are high in omega-3 fatty acids and plant-based foods that have been minimally processed. These diets should, of course, be followed all year, not just during winter.