Breakfast has long been touted as the most important meal of the day. Despite the value we place on breakfast, the most common food items are cereal, pastries, bagels, and pancakes. What if eating these high sugar foods set us up for lower moods and increased risk for mental and physical health complications? What would a more balanced diet look like to improve mental health?
As we evolved, sugar played a crucial role in survival. Consuming sugar in various forms provided quick access to high amounts of energy. However, in the modern world, sugar is not as scarce as it used to be for many cultures. These days, processed foods are packed with highly refined sugars, which the body processes differently than the natural sugar found in fruit and other plants.
Consuming highly-refined sugars places our body in a continuous cycle of processing that causes sharp spikes in our blood sugar, and this is where the trouble starts. The impact of chronically elevated blood sugar is the primary culprit behind the development of Type 2 diabetes and increased rates of chronic stress and mental health disorders.
Most of us who have dealt with addiction are probably familiar with dopamine’s role in the brain. Stimulants like amphetamines inundate our dopaminergic pathways with activity. Over time, these pathways atrophy and break down. However, drugs aren’t the only way to alter brain activity and structure. Every aspect of our lives has an impact, including the foods we eat. As it turns out, anything that elicits a strong reward response activates those same dopaminergic pathways — including sugar.
Studies have found that high glycemic diets are associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, and impaired cognitive abilities, including attention, learning, and memory. Additionally, studies in rats have displayed symptoms of withdrawal after losing access to sugar. Reducing processed sugar in the modern diet could play a significant role in promoting the ability to overcome addiction and lessen symptoms of mental health disorders.
If you want to be kind to your mind, you’re going to have to be kind to your gut. The gut, or the enteric nervous system, is like a whole second brain. The gut-brain axis links the emotional and cognitive centers of your brain with the gut. Even more impressive is that the bacteria that make up your microbiome are integral to this communication and are influential in various mental health disorders, especially anxiety, depression, and autism. Conversely, the brain also affects your gut; for example, the experience of stress can lead to higher expression of certain microbes that lead to disease in the gut. While much more research is still needed, the essence of our knowledge is this: the foods you eat also feed your gut microbiome, which affects your wellbeing through the nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system.
Those who remove excess sugar from their diets experience improvements in mood and a reduction in mental health symptoms like anxiety and depression. Compared to the standard American diet consisting of high levels of sugar and high glycemic carbohydrates, those who significantly cut out these sugars undergo dramatic changes in their gut microbiome. Whereas high sugar diets allow for the overgrowth of harmful microbes, low sugar diets allow for symbiotic microbes to thrive, producing essential fatty acids and neurochemicals vital to our health. The impact of having a healthy microbiome is enormous. Indeed, it is estimated that gut bacteria produce over 90% of your serotonin.
While there is no single way to eat that works for everyone, making an effort to replace processed and sugar-laden foods with whole foods can have a positive impact on anybody’s health. Beyond the added sugar, most packaged foods contain oils like soybean or safflower oil that can be very high in inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids, which need to be balanced with anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids. From an evolutionary perspective, most of the fats that our ancestors ate would have come from foods like nuts, seeds, and fish, which all contain high amounts of omega 3s. Today, most of us don’t get anywhere near the kind of balance our bodies, and as a result, the fats we eat cause excessive inflammation, considered a biomarker for stress.
So what should we eat? While each person is different because of their genetics, lifestyle, and environment, there are a few general rules that almost anybody can adopt to begin experiencing mental and physical relief from the distress our diets cause us. Focus on replacing highly processed foods with naturally occurring whole foods like nuts, fruits, and vegetables. You may find that your inflammation decreases, your mood improves, addictive urges subside and you feel more focused. These examples of the science behind food are just the tip of the iceberg; dive into the research for your mental health diagnoses, and each bite of breakfast could create real momentum towards healing.
Our mental and emotional health plays into all parts of our daily lives. The food we eat plays a particularly significant role in the physiological aspects of mood and addiction. We understand how difficult leaving an addiction behind can be, along with the range of mental and emotional issues that occur alongside addiction. Tackling lifestyle factors like reducing your sugar intake can significantly improve your gut health and cause a cascade of positive effects on your body and mind. In many ways, sugar intake can represent another manifestation of addiction; cutting out sugar may provide you with new stability and momentum to take on your addictions and mental health symptoms. At Safe Harbor, we believe in a whole-person approach to healing, including lifestyle changes through behavioral therapies, group therapy, mindfulness practices, and more. Call (833) 580-1473 today to learn more about the therapies and services we provide.