An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

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What Does Too Much Sugar Do to Your Body?

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Scientists now point to the consumption of sugar as one of the biggest threats to human 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 mental health, learning ability, mood, and overall quality of life.

As a result, recent studies link sugar and sugar additives to: 

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.

Negative Effects of Sugar on the Body

Sugar consumption affects physical health on multiple levels. While weight gain and tooth decay are well-known health issues associated with sugar intake, 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. 

Know the Facts

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

What we eat affects our mood and mental health, 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, 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.

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 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 anxiety, memory issues, and problems with cognitive function.

Sugar and mood swings are also linked. 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. 

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

A growing body of evidence 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 preferred to drink sugar water to cocaine—even when they were addicted to cocaine prior to the study. 

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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 recovering addict who is now a psychiatric researcher, discusses 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.

Detoxing from Sugar 

While dietary changes alone cannot cure mental health disorders, this growing body of research shows that 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.

However, detoxing from sugar may produce a variety of withdrawal symptoms, including a temporary intensification of mental health issues associated with sugar intake. These include depressive symptoms, anxiety, irritability, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, having a hard time concentrating, and cravings for carbohydrates. Physical sugar detox side effects include lightheadedness, nausea, fatigue, and tingling. These symptoms should subside once your body and blood sugar levels regulate. 

How to Do a Sugar Detox

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 getting off 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. 

Therefore, to answer the question, “What Does Too Much Sugar do to Your Body?” you must analyze several physical and mental outcomes that range from diabetes and heart disease to mood swings and anxiety. 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.

However, nutrition is just one aspect of an integrated treatment program for young adult mental health. If you’re suffering from mood swings, depression, or anxiety, contact us today. We’ll help you find the resources you need to start feeling better and embracing life again. 


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Mental Health / June 4, 2020

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