Sugar and Mental Health: Can a High-Sugar Diet Increase Anxiety Risk?

7 min read

Sugar and Mental Health: Can a High-Sugar Diet Increase Anxiety Risk?

According to some studies, regularly consuming a high-sugar diet could increase your risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. Does that mean your can of high-sugar soda is causing crippling anxiety? Not necessarily. However, what studies have found is that your dietary choices could play a role in your body’s ability to fight symptoms of anxiety and depression. 


The physical and mental are interconnected — and that connection applies to the sugar you’re consuming. But how strong is the link between sugar and anxiety? We’ve done the research. Here’s what you need to know about sugar and mental health: 

Does Sugar Cause Anxiety? 

Mental health disorders aren’t caused by diet alone — so no, sugar isn’t causing your anxiety. [1] But according to some recent research, it’s not exactly helping either. In one 2019 study of over 1,000 adults, researchers found that participants who followed a diet high in added sugars and saturated fat were more likely to have higher levels of anxiety than those who didn’t. [2] A 2017 study looking at data from over 23,000 people found that men with a higher sugar intake (over 69g per day) had a 23% higher chance of developing a mental health disorder. [3] This connection prevailed even after accounting for socio-demographic and other diet-related factors. [3] 


These and other studies show that even if we don’t fully understand it, there is a connection between sugar and mental health. Here are a few science-backed theories as to why: 

Fight or Flight Stress Response 

Let’s first examine what happens when your body consumes sugar. That glucose gets absorbed into your bloodstream, causing your blood sugar levels to rise. This triggers the pancreas to release insulin to help transport glucose from the bloodstream into your cells, where it can be used for energy or stored for future use. This is all well and good. But this process gets out of control when you frequently overload the system with excessive amounts of sugar. This can cause something called insulin resistance. This is when your body doesn’t accurately respond to insulin signals and ends up producing too much insulin. [4] 


This can cause a number of health problems. One of those problems is that this blood sugar spike and insulin resistance can throw off your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). The HPA axis is your stress response system. It’s the system responsible for triggering your fight or flight response. [5]  [6] In other words, a high-sugar diet doesn’t exactly make you feel calm. Instead, it could be doing the opposite — perpetuating your anxiety symptoms and making you feel even worse. [7]


In one study, for example, researchers had 37 healthy men fast for eight hours. Then, they randomly assigned these men to four experimental groups that either consumed glucose, protein, fat, or water. The study found that those in the glucose group had significantly higher cortisol, or stress hormone, levels than those in the other groups. [5] Although we need more research with higher participant numbers to confirm these findings, it does demonstrate the potential power of sugar on your mood. 

Sugar Crash

Diets high in sugar aren’t just potentially prompting a stress response, they could also mimic or even trigger anxiety symptoms. [1] After sipping on a high-sugar soda or diving into a pastry, your body experiences a rush of energy thanks to that spike in your blood sugar. However, this rapid increase in blood sugar is often followed by a subsequent drop, aka the all-too-familiar “sugar crash”. 


This sugar crash has a lot of similarities with symptoms of anxiety and depression: irritability, nervousness, fatigue, sadness, and so on. [8] In many ways, these symptoms could also mimic a panic attack. [9] If you struggle with anxiety, this is like adding more flames to an already raging fire. Not only are you at risk of worsening your anxiety symptoms but that sugar crash could be prompting even more anxiety. 


Feeling irritable, hangry, or like you’re experiencing a panic attack doesn’t exactly bode well for managing your emotions. [1] As you can imagine, it’s a lot harder to manage anxiety symptoms while putting your body through a rollercoaster ride of blood sugar fluctuations. To make matters worse, some studies suggest that a long-term high-sugar diet slowly erodes your ability to fight off these anxiety symptoms. [1]

Gut-Brain Axis

Emerging research suggests that there is a strong connection between your gut and your brain. These two organs develop side-by-side in the womb, and continue chatting with each other through the vagus nerve connection called the “gut-brain axis”. [10] Because these two have such a close relationship, this means that an unhappy gut could cause problems for your mental health. [11]


How do you make your gut happy? Well, the health of your gut largely depends on the food you feed it. A high fiber, healthy fat, and diverse diet makes your gut very happy. However, an imbalanced diet, including excessive sugar intake, can negatively affect your gut microbiome. It shakes up the balance of good and bad bacteria, paving the path for inflammation and metabolic dysfunction and making it harder for your body to fight back. [12] This is bad news because inflammation is linked to a large number of health concerns, including anxiety and depression. [13]  [14]

Sugar-Related Health Concerns

Last but not least is the indirect association that sugar has on your mental health through all the other possible health concerns stemming from a high-sugar diet. For example, excessive sugar consumption, especially in the form of highly processed and sugary foods, increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, obesity, and more. [15] According to the Mental Health Foundation, almost one in three people with a long-term health condition also struggle with a mental health concern, most often depression or anxiety. [16] 

What About Sugar Replacements?

So at this point, you might be thinking: well, sugar sounds pretty bad but what about fake sugar or sugar replacements? Swapping out sugar for an artificial or natural sweetener helps limit your sugar intake, preventing possible negative consequences associated with a high-sugar diet. But you might not be entirely in the clear. 


According to a 2014 study, a high intake of the artificial sweetener aspartame could increase your risk of irritability and depression. [17] A 2018 study found similar results. According to that study, the artificial sweetener aspartame could have possible links to behavioral and cognitive problems. Possible symptoms reported include headache, seizure, migraines, irritable moods, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. According to this study, these symptoms are a result of elevated cortisol levels and an overabundance of free radicals created by compounds found in aspartame. [18] It’s safe to say we need more research to understand and confirm the results of these findings. But these studies make the case for a healthy, low-sugar (and low artificial sugar) diet. 

9 Tips for Cutting Back on Sugar & Maintaining a Healthier Diet

The good news is that you can decrease your risk of the negative health effects of sugar by swapping it out for healthier eating patterns. [19] Cutting back on sugar and maintaining a healthier diet will help you feel better, give you more energy, and make you less prone to insulin imbalances and sugar spikes — this improves your body’s ability to cope with stress and anxiety. [1] When you’re feeling good, it’s a lot easier to navigate the lifestyle changes and decisions you need to make to manage your anxiety symptoms. 


What does a healthier eating pattern look like? Here are a few tips:

1. Enjoy in Moderation

We’re not suggesting you cut out sugar entirely. We’re not monsters! Instead, try enjoying high-sugar foods in moderation. This makes them all the more enjoyable. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest limiting your sugar intake to less than 10% of calories per day. [20]

2. Cut Back on Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

High-sugar drinks add the most sugar to the American diet out of any other food group. If you’re looking to cut back, swapping out your high-sugar energy drink or soda with a low-sugar alternative (like OLIPOP!) is a great way to go. 

3. Choose Nutrient-Dense Foods

It’s not just about cutting back on sugar. It’s also important to add healthy foods to your diet. According to one study, a diet including fruits, vegetables, fish, olive oil, nuts, and legumes could reduce your risk of developing depression. [19]

4. Keep Blood Sugar Levels in Check

When you do decide to enjoy a high-sugar dessert or drink, try to balance out that sugar with fiber and other healthy carbs. Sugar does far less damage when it’s accompanied by healthier food groups. This helps keep your sugar levels low, reducing your risk of blood sugar spikes. [7]

5. Anxiety Causes Sugar Cravings

The connection between sugar and anxiety goes both ways. Not only can sugar increase your anxiety symptoms but anxiety increases your desire for sugar. [21] Your body is craving that burst of feel-good chemicals called dopamine that sugar provides. [22] Try and spot these cravings as they’re occurring, and ask yourself: am I hungry or am I seeking comfort through food? 

6. Stop the Sugar Cycle

A diet high in sweet and salty foods only makes you crave these foods even more. It’s a cycle of sweets and the only way to get off this rollercoaster ride is to satisfy your hunger with foods that actually fill you up like healthy fats, lean proteins, and complex carbs. Get into the habit of filling up your plate with these instead. 

7. Watch Out for Hidden Sugar

Soda, baked goods, and candy bars are obvious high-sugar zones. But sugar is also hiding in some not-so-obvious places like yogurts, condiments, oatmeal, bread, and more. Keep an eye on that back nutrition label to spot these hidden offenders. 

8. Be Patient

If you’re cutting out sugar cold turkey or taking dramatic action against your current sugar intake keep in mind that this could lead to some unpleasant withdrawal effects. Be patient with yourself as you reduce your sugar intake. And remember that everybody is different, so don’t compare your progress against anyone but yourself.

9. Give Your Gut Some Love

One study suggests that a diet complete with probiotics and prebiotics could help reduce your risk of anxiety. [11] So give your gut some love with prebiotic fibers like the ones found in OLIPOP and probiotics like fermented foods and yogurt.

Sugar and Anxiety: The Takeaway

Consuming sugar can potentially impact anxiety, but it's important to understand that the relationship between sugar and anxiety is complex and can vary from person to person. Some people may be more sensitive to sugar's effects on blood sugar and stress hormones, while others may not experience significant anxiety symptoms related to sugar consumption. 


Either way, adopting healthier eating habits and evaluating your relationship with sugar is beneficial for your health — both mental and physical. Just make sure to talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian before making any dramatic changes to your diet. It’s also important to speak with your doctor or a mental health specialist if you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. They can help provide the right guidance for you. 



Sources

  1. Abraham, M. (2020, October 10). Sugar and Anxiety: The Relationship. Calm Clinic. https://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/causes/sugar
  2. Masana, M. F., Tyrovolas, S., Kolia, N., Chrysοhoou, C., Skoumas, J., Haro, J. M., Tousoulis, D., Papageorgiou, C., Pitsavos, C., & Panagiotakos, D. B. (2019). Dietary Patterns and Their Association with Anxiety Symptoms among Older Adults: The ATTICA Study. Nutrients, 11(6), 1250. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11061250
  3. Knüppel, A., Shipley, M. J., Llewellyn, C., & Brunner, E. J. (2017). Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7
  4. The Insulin Resistance–Diabetes connection. (2022, June 20). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/insulin-resistance.html
  5. González-Bono, E., Rohleder, N., Hellhammer, D. H., Salvador, A., & Kirschbaum, C. (2002). Glucose but not protein or fat load amplifies the cortisol response to psychosocial stress. Hormones and Behavior, 41(3), 328–333. https://doi.org/10.1006/hbeh.2002.1766
  6. Joseph, J. J., & Golden, S. H. (2016). Cortisol dysregulation: the bidirectional link between stress, depression, and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1391(1), 20–34. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13217
  7. Cole, W. (2020, December 30). The Sugar-Anxiety Connection You Need To Know About. Mindbodygreen. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/why-sugar-might-be-at-the-root-of-your-anxiety
  8. Wiss, D. A., Avena, N. M., & Rada, P. (2018). Sugar Addiction: From evolution to revolution. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00545
  9. Naidoo, U. (2020, October 27). Eating well to help manage anxiety: Your questions answered. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-well-to-help-manage-anxiety-your-questions-answered-2018031413460
  10. Goldstein, A. M., Hofstra, R., & Burns, A. J. (2013). Building a brain in the gut: development of the enteric nervous system. Clinical Genetics, 83(4), 307–316. https://doi.org/10.1111/cge.12054
  11. Yang, B., Wei, J., Ju, P., & Chen, J. (2019). Effects of regulating intestinal microbiota on anxiety symptoms: A systematic review. General Psychiatry, 32(2), e100056. https://doi.org/10.1136/gpsych-2019-100056
  12. Satokari, R. (2020). High Intake of Sugar and the Balance between Pro- and Anti-Inflammatory Gut Bacteria. Nutrients, 12(5), 1348. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12051348
  13. Pahwa R, Goyal A, Jialal I. Chronic Inflammation. [Updated 2023 Aug 7]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/ 
  14. Camacho, Á. S. (2013). Is anxious-depression an inflammatory state? Medical Hypotheses, 81(4), 577–581. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2013.07.006
  15. How Too Much Added Sugar Affects Your Health Infographic. (n.d.). American Heart Association. Retrieved October 20, 2023, from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/how-too-much-added-sugar-affects-your-health-infographic
  16. Physical health and mental health. (2022, February 18). Mental Health Foundation. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/a-z-topics/physical-health-and-mental-health
  17. Lindseth, G., Coolahan, S. E., Petros, T. V., & Lindseth, P. D. (2014). Neurobehavioral effects of aspartame consumption. Research in Nursing & Health, 37(3), 185–193. https://doi.org/10.1002/nur.21595
  18. Choudhary, A. K., & Lee, Y. Y. (2017). Neurophysiological symptoms and aspartame: What is the connection? Nutritional Neuroscience, 21(5), 306–316. https://doi.org/10.1080/1028415x.2017.1288340
  19. Aucoin, M., & Bhardwaj, S. (2016). Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Hypoglycemia Symptoms Improved with Diet Modification. Case Reports in Psychiatry, 2016, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/7165425
  20. Mikstas, C. (2021, April 21). What to Know About Sugar and Depression. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/diet/what-to-know-about-sugar-and-depression
  21. Kose, J., Cheung, A., Fezeu, L., Péneau, S., Debras, C., Touvier, M., Herçberg, S., Galán, P., & Andreeva, V. A. (2021). A Comparison of Sugar Intake between Individuals with High and Low Trait Anxiety: Results from the NutriNet-Santé Study. Nutrients, 13(5), 1526. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13051526
  22. Hughes, L. (2022, April 6). How Does Too Much Sugar Affect Your Body? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/features/how-sugar-affects-your-body
Cheat Sheet
  • Sugar isn’t causing your anxiety. However, a high-sugar diet could play a role in your body's ability to cope or deal with those occasional feelings of nervousness and stress. 
  • High sugar could trigger your body’s fight-or-flight response or lead to blood sugar spikes that trigger or mimic anxiety. 
  • You can decrease your risk of the negative health effects of sugar by consuming sugar in moderation and adopting healthier eating patterns.
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