It’s easy to consider anxiety and other mental health problems a completely separate issue than your physical health. But in reality, the way you feel mentally can be directly correlated to how you feel physically and even more importantly—what you're putting in your body. Excess sugar, in particular, is one of the biggest contributors to a poor mental state.
Understanding the connection between sugar and the brain.
Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. For some people, it's more anxiety; for others it's predominantly depression, but they are highly connected. People are often given SSRI medications, which prevent the reuptake of serotonin and make more serotonin available for your brain. When these medications were developed, it was believed that anxiety and depression were caused by low levels of serotonin. But now further research has found that high, not low levels of serotonin are, in fact, making anxiety levels worse for many people. Guess what also raises serotonin levels? Sugar. If you struggle with anxiety, it's possible that every time you eat sugar you're contributing to the neurochemical reaction of anxiety and further perpetuating the issue. Mary Poppins wasn't too far off when she sang "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."
Linking your gut health to your mental health.
Almost all disease can be traced back to your microbiome. and the proper balance of bacteria in your gut is largely responsible for your optimal health. You can either choose to feed good bacteria or bad bacteria—and sugar continues to feed bad bacteria as well as yeast overgrowths like Candida. When bad bacteria take over, it creates an imbalance that leads to chronic systemic inflammation. And although you may not have digestive symptoms, you can certainly have digestive problems—they may just be manifesting themselves in different areas of your body—like your brain or nervous system. In fact, studies actually show that people who deal with anxiety have lower levels of Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus helveticus bacteria strains.
Did you know that your gut and brain are connected from the very start? The two organs develop from the exact same fetal tissue in the womb and continue to communicate together your whole life through the vagus nerve and the gut-brain axis. Researchers are starting to see how inflammation, due to these aforementioned microbiome dysfunctions, contributes to depression and anxiety through "the cytokine model of cognitive function." When you have chronic inflammation, it can lead to damage of your protective blood-brain barrier and what us functional medicine doctors like to call "leaky brain." And because your brain’s immune system is working even harder to fight off invaders due to barrier destruction, it can lead to an inflammatory-autoimmune response. Basically, your immune system ends up attacking your brain and nervous tissue. So it’s really no surprise that anxiety is more common in patients with autoimmune disease than even chronic degenerative conditions due to the inflammatory effect on the central nervous system.
Familiarizing yourself with blood sugar.
Another piece of the anxiety puzzle comes into play when we really examine blood sugar. Excess sugar intake contributes to blood sugar spikes, imbalances, and insulin resistance. And when your blood sugar is out of whack, it throws off your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which is responsible for releasing your stress hormone cortisol. If you're constantly throwing off your adrenals with sugar, you’ll never really calm down and can further perpetuate the feelings of anxiety. If you want your HPA axis to function properly, you have to keep your blood sugar levels in check.
Plus, when your blood sugar levels are off, it can increase those evil "hangry" feelings; you'll find yourself always needing sweet and salty foods in order to feel satisfied. But that’s the problem: You never get off the hamster wheel that is blood sugar imbalance and anxiety. It’s been shown that diets mainly comprised of sugar and high-glucose foods raise anxiety and switching to a low-sugar diet can drastically lower anxiety after just four weeks.
Finding out if sugar is a problem for you.
Running labs is a great way to understand where your baseline is and how drastically you need to change your diet to start healing. These are the most common labs that I run to assess gut, brain, and blood sugar function:
1. Microbiome labs.
These labs will check your gut bacteria and give you a better indication of whether or not your gut has been compromised:
- A comprehensive stool analysis: This can assess the bacterial diversity of your gut.
- Zonulin and Occludin Antibodies: These are two proteins that control gut permeability. If you have antibodies, it could mean there's damage to the intestinal tight junctions.
- Actomyosin Antibodies: Presence of these could mean there was destruction of healthy gut lining.
- Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) Antibodies: These are bacterial endotoxins located in your gut. If antibodies are found in your blood, that could be a sign of leaky gut syndrome.
2. Autoimmune reactivity brain labs.
These blood labs can look for raised antibodies against parts of the brain, ruling out neurological autoimmune reactivity.
3. Blood sugar labs.
These are some of the labs I run to determine if your blood sugar is out of whack and contributing to your anxiety.
- Serum insulin: Optimal range: < 3 ulU/mL
- C-peptide: Optimal range: 0.8 to 3.1 ng/mL
- Fasting blood sugar: Optimal range: 75 to 90 mg/dL
- Hgb A1C: Optimal range: < 5.3 percent
- Triglycerides: Optimal range: < 100 mg/dL
- HDL: Optimal range: 59 to 100 mg/dL
Once you have a better understanding of where your health stands, the next step to calming your anxiety is to stop feeding it with sugar. Of course, having a treat here and there is definitely not a bad thing. However, it’s important to be smart about satisfying your sweet tooth by using natural sweeteners instead. Raw honey is one of my favorite options due to its high antioxidant content. It’s been shown that eating honey instead of sucrose can decrease anxiety.
Hop on over to my sweetener guide to find the perfect sweetener for you!