A new study by a team of clinical psychologists from the University of Kansas (United States) suggests that the consumption of added sugars, common in many Christmas foods, can trigger metabolic, inflammatory and neurobiological processes related to depressive diseases, as published in the magazine ‘Medical Hypotheses’.
Along with the decrease in winter light and changes in sleep patterns during the holidays, high sugar consumption could cause a “perfect storm” that negatively affects mental health, the researchers warn.
“For many people, reduced exposure to sunlight during winter will alter circadian rhythms, disrupt healthy sleep and push 5 to 10% of the population to a full episode of clinical depression,” says Stephen Ilardi, associate professor of Clinical Psychology of the University of Kansas.
Ilardi, co-author of the study with KU graduate students Daniel Reis, Michael Namekata, Erik Wing and Carina Fowler, points out that these symptoms of “onset depression in the winter” could lead people to consume more sweets.
“A common characteristic of the depression of onset in the winter is the craving for sugar – precise–. Therefore, we have up to 30% of the population that suffers at least some symptoms of depression of onset in the winter, what that makes them crave carbohydrates, and now they constantly face Christmas candy. “
Ilardi says that avoiding additional dietary sugar could be especially complicated because sugar offers an initial boost of mood, which leads some people with depressive illnesses to seek their temporary emotional elevation.
“When we consume sweets, they act like a drug,” he insists. “They have an immediate mood-raising effect, but in high doses they can also have a long-term paradoxical and detrimental consequence of worsening mood, reducing wellness, raise inflammation and cause weight gain. “
The researchers reached their conclusions by analyzing a wide range of research on the physiological and psychological effects of added sugar consumption, including the Observation Study of the Women’s Health Initiative, the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, a study of Spanish university graduates and studies of Australian and Chinese soda drinkers.
Ilardi warns that it might be appropriate to have the added sugar count, at sufficiently high levels, such as physically and psychologically harmful, just like drinking too much liquor.
“We have enough evidence that an alcoholic drink a day is safe and could have a beneficial effect for some people,” he admits. “Alcohol is basically pure calories, pure energy, non-nutritive and super toxic in high doses. Sugars are very similar. We are learning when it comes to depression, people who optimize their diet should provide all the nutrients the brain needs and mainly avoid these potential toxins. “
The researchers found that inflammation is the most important physiological effect of dietary sugar related to mental health and depressive disorder.
A large subset of people with depression have high levels of systemic inflammation, ‘adds Ilardi-. When we think of inflammatory disease, we think of diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, diseases with a high level of systemic inflammation, but normally we do not think that depression is in that category, but it turns out that it really is, not for everyone who is depressed but Approximately yes for half.
“We also know that inflammatory hormones can lead the brain directly to a state of severe depression,” he continues. “Therefore, an inflamed brain is typically a depressed brain. And added sugars have a pro-inflammatory effect on the body and brain. “.
Ilardi and his collaborators also identify the impact of sugar on the microbiome as a possible contributor to depression. “Our bodies house more than 10 billion microbes and many of them know how to hack the brain,” says Ilardi.
“Symbiotic microbial species, beneficial microbes, basically pirate the brain to improve our well-being. They want us to prosper so they can thrive. But there are also some opportunistic species that can be considered more purely parasitic,” he adds. “We don’t have in mind our better interest. Many of these parasitic microbes thrive with added sugars and can produce chemicals that push the brain into a state of anxiety, stress and depression. They are also highly inflammatory. “
Thus, Ilardi recommends a minimally processed diet rich in foods of plant origin and Omega-3 fatty acids for optimal psychological benefit. As for sugar, take caution, not only during the holidays, but throughout the year.
“There is no single approach to predict exactly how any person’s body will react to a given food at a given dose – Ilardi- points out. As a conservative guide, based on our current state of knowledge, there could be some risk associated with high-dose sugar intake, probably something above the American Heart Association guide, which is 25 grams of added sugars per day. “