Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Dietary Sugar and Mental Illness: A Surprising Link

Noted British psychiatric researcher Malcolm Peet has conducted a provocative cross-cultural analysis of the relationship between diet and mental illness. His primary finding may surprise you: There is a strong link between high sugar consumption and the risk of both depression and schizophrenia.

In fact, there are two known mechanisms through which sugar intake could exert a toxic effect on mental health.

First, eating sugar actually suppresses the activity of a key growth hormone in the brain called BDNF. This hormone promotes the health and maintenance of neurons in the brain, and it plays a vital role in memory function by triggering the growth of new connections between neurons. BDNF levels are critically low in both depression and schizophrenia, which explains why both syndromes often lead to shrinkage of key brain regions over time (yes, chronic depression actually leads to brain damage). There's also evidence from animal models that low BDNF can trigger depression.

Second, sugar consumption triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in the body that promote chronic inflammation. Now, under certain circumstances (like when your body needs to heal a bug bite), a little inflammation can be a good thing, since it can increase immune activity and blood flow to a wound. But in the long term, inflammation is a big problem. It disrupts the normal functioning of the immune system, and wreaks havoc on the brain.

Inflammation is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer . . . and also linked to a much greater risk of depression and schizophrenia. And again, eating sugar triggers inflammation. So does eating ubiquitous processed sugars like 'high fructose corn syrup'.

If you think about it, it makes sense that our bodies don't handle sugar very well. After all, for the vast majority (99.9%) of our existence as a species, there simply was no sugar. We were endowed with a sweet tooth so that we'd crave the highly nutritious fruits that were in rare supply in the ancestral environment. But with the advent of processed sugar cane a few centuries ago, the blessing of our formerly adaptive sweet tooth suddenly turned into a curse - causing us to crave foods that we were simply never designed to process.

As I've become increasingly convinced by these research data, I've begun gently encouraging my depressed patients to simply try cutting out sugars for a week to see if they notice any effect. (I also ask them to cut out simple starches - like crackers and white bread - which the body converts directly to sugars). Many patients have given it a go . . . often with rather remarkable improvements in mood, energy level, and mental clarity.

And, even though I've been very fortunate to escape the debilitating scourge of depression, I tried cutting out sugar myself a few months ago. Although one can never rule out placebo effects in such self-directed trials (!) . . . I've definitely noticed a nice improvement in energy and mental sharpness (I used to get a little foggy for an hour or two after lunch, and that just doesn't happen any more).

If you decide to give it a try, please be sure to pass along the results under the blog's Comments section. Good luck!


Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Hmmm....I'll give it a go.

Psych Pundit said...


That's great. I'll look forward to hearing how it goes for you. I wonder if any of your many readers would be willing to join you? ;-)

Daniel Haszard said...

Well said,i applaud your blog, mental health consumers are the least capable of self advocacy,my doctors made me take zyprexa for 4 years which was ineffective for my symptoms.I now have a victims support page against Eli Lilly for it's Zyprexa product causing my diabetes.--Daniel Haszard www.zyprexa-victims.com

Vicoprofen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Assistant Village Idiot said...

Daniel, I've got the families of two dead people up here in NH who wish that my patient had stayed on his Zyprexa. I don't know your case, your doctor, or your gripe, but the words of people who make their personal grievances into causes have an effect on others. Be cautious in your speech, please.

Psych pundit. Sorry I didn't link to you when GM Roper put us all up on his site. I'll link to two to make up for it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

More to the OP. On an acute psyche unit, we watch moods change pretty dramatically with some diabetics around their sugar. Prolonged screwing with your sugar can provoke manic episodes.

I do wonder if the thought-disorder and mood-disorder correlations might be from different mechanisms. Schizophrenics use the chemicals at hand (nicotine, caffeine) to stimulate their frontal lobes, and feel normal. Repeated sugar rush may be a variant of this.

Mark said...

AVI wrote"I've got the families of two dead people up here in NH who wish that my patient had stayed on his Zyprexa."
Well buddy, I have one dead friend from the effects of Zyprexa.

Ed said...

Apart from what's been written above, I'd also mention "REACTIVE HYPOGLYCEMIA"; low blood sugar triggered by simple carbs like refined sugar and white bread.
I used to have almost daily suicidal thoughts. Was all to do with a diet of too much refined carbohydrates and caffeine.

Carla said...

I absolutely agree in the connection between sugar and mental health. I used to suffer from depression and extreme anxiety. Since completely omitting sugar from my diet I have never felt better. I no longer have palpitations, insomnia, low moods and brain fog.
If you suffer from anxiety/depression I highly recommend you try at least 2 weeks off the sugar - you may get headaches at first but persevere.

Bobby said...

I have suffered from severe stages of depression since i was 14.Few months back I cam across the bad effect of sugar and caffeine .I have stopped both of these stuffs .NOW I FEEL THAT I AM BORN AGAIN. I AM FULL OF ENERGY AND NO SIGN OF DEPRESSION AT ALL.THIS ALL HAPPENED WITHIN A SPAN OF 4 WEEKS !!!!!

Anonymous said...

I cut the sugar and the refined stuff. I had suffered with depression and moodiness. It improved my thinking and emotions and I feel great and look way better too.

I have had some slipups lately and have started my own blog to help and encourage myself and others along the road. I quoted your blog in mine and cited it. If you object, please contact me and I will remove the citation.

Thanks :) CFF

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megan said...

I just read this article because of two things.

I have depression with psychotic features (these features I only see if I really really slide - havne't for years). 6 months ago I went on a ketogenic diet. NO sugar, NO crbohydrates period. My mood completely stabilized. I'm serene. I'm calm, I'm not depressed, I'm off of antidepressants, I'm not reactive, I take things in stride.

2) I work with people with concurrent disorders. We got a kitchen put in the building (after years of fund-raising). Our building is tenanted with people off the street with out of control addictions and completely decompensated. We stabilize them and find them alternate housing. There is often a lot of fighting, suicidality, violence. Within a week of the kitchen going in the building CALMED DOWN. Noticeably. I wish we'd done a before and after study of 911 calls.

Between the two experiences I am convinced that carbs are inextricably linked to mental health, perhaps in bigger ways than we've imagined. Perhaps much of the mental health issues we see are 'diseases of civilization' like obesity and heart disease.


natural penis enlargement said...

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Anonymous said...

There is no doubt in my mind about this. I suffered on and off with depression and weight/skin problems for years and would have days where I literally could not get out of bed, followed by days where I was running ten k in the morning and producing incredible results at work. It didn't make sense to me that it could be an unhealthy diet as I never smoked, barely drank, exercised and lived on fruit, veg and fish (apart from my cupcake and chocolate bar most days and the odd sugar binge). Some days I was completely clear and rational and others I felt like I was going to die, convinced myself I had cancer etc. Anyway, my brother (a junior doc) suggested I cut out sugar before taking the anti-depressants I had been prescribed and I did. You have no idea. Within 6 weeks-I lost a stone even although my calorie intake was exactly the same (have always allowed myself 1500 cals a day and monitor closely), I was clear and bright mentally, I had drive, sex drive returned to normal, no more ectopic heart beats or palpitations, brilliant at work wiith so much concentration, heart burn stopped, skin perfect, periods lighter and less painful. I cannot ever explain the difference in my mind and body-it's remarkable. And no, it is not psychological. My partner thinks he has a new girl! And I feel great.

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