For years I binged on sugar. When my anxiety would peak, I reached for sugar. As the stress of the day would increase, so did my sugar intake. Sugar had the power to calm me one moment, only to turn on me the next.
My anxiety attacks became more frequent, my headaches worsened, my thoughts constantly raced and I awoke each morning feeling like I had clenched my jaw all night long. This roller coaster of high blood sugar followed by a crash worsened my anxiety symptoms and impaired my body’s natural ability to cope with stress.
And I’m not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting 31 percent of Americans at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Although the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says that anxiety is very treatable, only 37 percent of patients actually get help.
How Sugar Worsens Anxiety Symptoms
It’s an important distinction that while sugar doesn’t cause anxiety, it can create changes in your body that may worsen anxiety symptoms or cause feelings that trigger anxiety attacks.
Sugar messes with the balance of bacteria in the microbiome of your gut, creating an imbalance between good and bad bacteria, which leads to inflammation. Dr. Cole believes that long-term inflammation causes your brain’s immune system to work overtime and contributes to mental health problems like anxiety, depression and fatigue.
And research confirms this association between sugar and anxiety. Cole points to a 2008 and 2009 study (both published in the journal Physiology and Behavior) that found that the more sugar you eat — refined sugar, in particular — the worse your anxiety can be.
What Happened When I Cut Back on Sugar
If you’ve been consuming processed sugars daily, giving up the sweet stuff can cause:
- a spike in stress hormones
- making you feel irritable
- says Mike Dow, Psy.D.
- author of the upcoming book “Heal Your Drained Brain.” He points to research published in 2014 in the journal Behavioral Brain Research that found that when people withdraw from an unhealthy
- blood sugar-spiking Western diet
- the genes that affect stress are altered
Other Anxiety-Busting Lifestyle Changes
Dr. Naidoo says that people who suffer from anxiety need to avoid several common triggers: low blood sugar, poor hydration, use of alcohol, drinking caffeine and smoking (nicotine in cigarettes).
Both Dr. Naidoo and Dr. Dow recommend a Mediterranean diet (which advocates for less sugar and more fish, veggies, beans, whole fruit and olive oil) to people looking to get off sugar while also easing anxiety symptoms. A 2017 study found that this way of eating doesn’t just prevent mood symptoms, it can even treat them.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you struggle with anxiety? Do you notice that sugar worsens your symptoms? Have you tried to cut back on your sugar intake? Did you notice any changes in your symptoms? Have you made any other dietary changes? Share your stories, suggestions and questions in the comments below!