An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

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What Does Too Much Sugar Do to Your Body?

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Scientists now point to the consumption of sugar as one of the biggest threats to human health—including mental health.

It’s common knowledge that eating too much sugar and processed foods can lead to health problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes in young adults. But that’s not all. As researchers explore the question “What does too much sugar do to your body?,” they’re drawing new conclusions about sugar’s negative impact on well-being, learning ability, mood, and overall quality of life.

Recent studies on sugar and mental health have found that consumption of sugar and sugar additives has the following results:

That’s important information for young adults, who tend to consume more sugar than other age groups. According to research by Healthy Food America, individuals between the ages of 20 and 29 have the highest rate of sugar intake than any other demographic.

The Negative Effects of Sugar on the Body

Sugar consumption affects physical health on multiple levels. Weight gain and tooth decay are well-known health issues associated with sugar intake. However, there are other negative effects of sugar on the body that are not common knowledge among young adults.

Diabetes: Consumption of sugary drinks and processed foods is associated with weight gain, and obesity is the most significant risk factor for diabetes. In addition, a high-sugar diet can create insulin resistance, causing blood sugar levels to rise—another factor increasing the risk of diabetes in young adults.

Heart disease: High-sugar diets affect blood sugar, blood pressure, and artery health, increasing the risk of heart disease.

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One study tracked 30,000 people and found that the risk of dying from heart disease was significantly greater among those who got around 20 percent of their calories from added sugar.

This group had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who got only 8 percent of their calories from added sugar.

Acne: People who eat more refined carbohydrates—found in sugary drinks and processed food with sugar—tend to be at higher risk of developing acne. That’s because these foods cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. As a result, oil production, inflammation, and secretion of hormones all increase, catalyzing the development of acne.

Liver disease: Most added sugar in processed foods comes in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which is processed by the liver and turned into fat. This can cause the disease known as “fatty liver,” and also create scarring in the liver.

Cancer: Along with increasing the likelihood of obesity, a high sugar intake creates inflammation in the body. Both of these factors increase the risk of cancer.

Joint pain and rheumatoid arthritis: Due to the inflammation created by sugar intake, high sugar consumption can make joint pain worse and increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Sugar and Mental Health

The physical effects of sugar consumption are well known, but researchers are also uncovering information about processed sugar and its effect on mental health. In general, what we eat impacts our mood and well-being—not only in the immediate aftermath of ingestion, but also progressively over time. One reason for this is that the greatest concentration of serotonin—which is critical to mood and emotion regulation—is found in the gut, not the brain. Sometimes called “the belly brain” or “microbiome,” this system is connected directly to the brain. Therefore, if we eat nutritious foods that promote good brain function, mental health also benefits.

But sugar has the opposite effect. What does too much sugar do to your body? Let’s take a closer look.

According to research by Malcolm Peet on processed sugar and its effects on mental health, sugar suppresses activity of a key growth hormone in the brain called BNDF. Low BNDF is associated with mental health disorders such as bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. Moreover, sugar triggers chemical reactions in the body that promote chronic inflammation, disrupting immune system function. The negative effects of sugar on the body can be partially explained by this chain of reactions.

According to research, sugar suppresses activity of a key growth hormone in the brain called BNDF.

All of these factors impact brain function and therefore affect mental health. Hence, there is a clear connection between processed or added sugar and depression as well as between sugar and stress, whereby sugar increases the risk of depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety. In addition, a study done with mice showed that changes in the gut microbiota as a result of high sugar intake catalyze memory issues and problems with cognitive function.

In addition, mood swings can sometimes be explained by the link between sugar consumption and mental health. Sugar intake causes spikes in blood sugar, followed by a crash and a craving for more. On a daily basis, this affects mood. And over time, this repeated series of highs and lows creates chronic stress on the body and brain, and therefore accentuates many of the symptoms associated with mood disorders and depression.

Furthermore, because the physical and mental reactions to blood sugar spikes and drops can mimic the symptoms of a panic disorder, high sugar intake can enhance feelings of stress and panic. Sugar intake also interferes with sleep quality, which directly impacts mental health, according to a study done with university students.

Know the Facts

In a 2021 study, participants who consumed one or more sugar-sweetened beverages daily had a 26% greater prevalence of poor mental health than those who did not drink beverages with processed sugar. Drinking 100% fruit juice did not have any negative effect on mental health.

Addiction to Sugar: What Does Too Much Sugar Do to Your Body?

A growing body of evidence on sugar and mental health shows that consumption of sugar and refined sweeteners parallels the addictive processes in the brain that result from substance abuse. Like drugs (though to a lesser extent), sugar and processed junk food flood the brain with the feel-good chemical dopamine. Excess levels of dopamine significantly change the natural functions of the brain over time. Hence, when someone has an addiction to sugar, their brain is primed to have a heightened response to other drugs that target the dopamine system in the brain.

In a study conducted by Yale University, just looking at a milkshake activated the same reward centers of the brain in people with addictive eating habits as those that are activated in the brains of cocaine users. Furthermore, French scientists in Bordeaux conducted a similar study. Their reports found that, in animal trials, rats displayed an addiction to sugar. They preferred to drink sugar water to cocaine—even when they were addicted to cocaine prior to the study.

According to the study, the scientists speculated that “the intense stimulation of sweet receptors by our typical 21st-century sugar-rich diets generate a supra-normal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus lead to addiction.” In addition, the rats demonstrated classic symptoms of substance use disorders, including tolerance and withdrawal symptoms when the fatty and sugary products were taken away.

In his book Sweet Poison, David Gillespie, a psychiatric researcher who is in recovery, discusses his addiction to sugar and details his decision to stop eating it. He explains, “You are breaking an addiction, so you need to stop consuming all sources of the addictive substance. They are all hard to give up because they are addictive. But, they are all easy to give up once you understand what you’re doing for your body and why.” The highs and lows that come with sugar both scientifically and emotionally relate to the experiences catalyzed by substance abuse, according to Gillespie.

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5 Signs That You’re Suffering from Processed Sugar and Its Effects on Mental Health

The growing body of research on sugar and mental health makes it clear that the way processed and added sugars react in the body and brain is detrimental to mood and well-being. Have you been suffering from the consequences of what sugar does to your body? Here are five signs that your sugar intake may be negatively impacting your mental health. 

  1. You feel irritable, stressed, and on edge for no apparent reason.
  2. You’re often fatigued and have low energy.
  3. Cravings for sweets come over you on a daily basis.
  4. Falling asleep and/or staying asleep are difficult.
  5. Your focus, concentration, and mental clarity are poor.

These signs may also indicate a mental health issue unrelated to sugar, so it’s important to get a full mental health assessment if you are experiencing these symptoms.

Detoxing from Sugar

Ready to make a change in your levels of sugar consumption? While dietary changes alone cannot cure mental health disorders, cutting sugar and sugary additives from a regular diet can minimize symptoms, boost energy, and improve the body’s ability to cope with stress on emotional and physical levels. Therefore, removing sugar and processed foods from one’s diet is a good way to support a more positive mental state while avoiding or reversing an addiction to sugar.

In her book Potatoes, Not Prozac: Solutions for Sugar Sensitivity, nutritionist Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, offers a dietary plan to smooth the sometimes challenging process of detoxing from sugar. She proposes a few solutions on how to support mental and physical health during a sugar detox for beginners. 

  • Keep a food journal. DesMaisons says this will help “keep you in sync and in a relationship with your body. It reminds you of the connection between what you eat and how you feel.
  • Always eat breakfast, and have five small meals each day at regular intervals.  
  • Find ways to naturally stimulate your serotonin level. For example, practice meditation and yoga, and do physical exercise on a regular basis. 
  • DesMaisons also recommends eating high-quality sources of protein at each meal—such as eggs, a handful of almonds, bananas, yogurt, or berries. These foods help to keep blood sugar levels steady and thus enhance energy and mood.

Here are a few additional tips for lowering sugar intake:

  • Eat bitter greens, such as arugula or broccoli raab, which have been shown to shut down the receptors in the brain that trigger sugar cravings.
  • Get enough sleep: A healthy amount of sleep lowers stress and increases energy, which in turn help to minimize the desire for sugar.
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners, which have been shown to enhance sugar dependence.
  • Consume high-fiber foods, like beans and vegetables, to avoid hunger and stabilize blood sugar.
  • Notice when you feel most drawn toward having a sugary snack—perhaps late afternoon when your energy flags—and make sure you have a healthy substitute on hand.
  • If you do give in to a sugar craving, be compassionate with yourself.

In summary, there are many negative effects of sugar on the body, and the addictive nature of sugar can lead to other addictive tendencies. By keeping your sugar intake under control and following a balanced diet, you will support a more stable and elevated mood and an improved sense of well-being. Eating better can make a big difference in your state of mind.

How Newport Institute Uses the Meal as Medicine

Research shows that a well-balanced nutrition program can actually prevent or reverse depression and anxiety symptoms. Eating for mental health—what we call “the meal as medicine” at Newport Institute—is at the top of the list of healthy lifestyle choices that can truly transform a young adult’s life. That’s why our nutrition program is a foundational element of our clinical model, and includes limiting processed sugar and its effects on mental health.

At Newport Institute, the nutrition program is woven into the fabric of each day. Our culinary staff serves freshly prepared food made from scratch with seasonal, local, and organic ingredients. Young adults participate in horticulture therapy in our on-site gardens, planting and tending the vegetables that are served in our daily meals. Moreover, our nutritionists and culinary staff create healthy meal plans and educate residents about proper nutrition.

Healthy eating also encompasses how we eat, not just what we eat. In our culinary program, young adults help to create and share delicious meals. Ultimately, understanding and practicing the elements of proper nutrition will benefit young adults for the rest of their lives—boosting their physical health, energy levels, and overall well-being.

A Whole-Person Approach to Treatment

Nutrition is just one aspect of Newport Institute’s integrated treatment program for young adults. Our evidence-based approach also incorporates clinical modalities like CBT, DBT, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and experiential therapies such as art, music, and Adventure Therapy. We support young people to heal the underlying issues catalyzing mental health conditions and co-occurring issues such as substance abuse and eating disorders.

If you or someone you love is suffering from trauma, mood swings, depression, or anxiety, contact us today. We’ll help you access the resources and support you need to get started on the path to healing.


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Mental Health / November 21, 2021

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