University of Kansas: Sugar Can Cause Depression in Winter

If you are sensitive to winter blues, avoid sweets during this season. Added sugars can be harmful to mental health.



During winter when it is cold and dark, it can be tempting to eat more sweets. However, a new study suggests that the consumption of added sugars may provoke metabolic, inflammatory and neurobiological processes associated with depressive illness. In other words, high sugar intake can be harmful to mental health, according to researchers at the University of Kansas. The results were published in Medical Hypotheses.

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High sugar levels, combined with less light in winter and corresponding changes in sleeping patterns, can have adverse effects on mental health. “For many people, reduced sunlight exposure during the winter will throw off circadian rhythms, disrupting healthy sleep and pushing five to 10 percent of the population into a full-blown episode of clinical depression,” says Stephen Ilardi, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas.

Say no to your favorite pastries

The winter blues can make people eat more candy. “One common characteristic of winter-onset depression is craving sugar,” says Stephen Ilardi. So we have up to 30% of the population who suffer from at least some symptoms of winter blues, causing them to crave carbohydrates… and now they’re constantly faced with sweets during the holidays.

Because sugar improves mood, some depressed people seek temporary emotional relief, often by seeking more sugar. In this case, it can be particularly difficult to avoid adding sugar to the diet.

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According to Stephen Ilardi  when we consume sweets, they behave like medicine. They have an immediate effect on mood, but in high doses they can also have a paradoxical and damaging effect in the long term, by worsening mood, reducing well-being, increasing inflammation and causing weight gain.

Avoid processed foods and limit sugar intake

Diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis are usually associated with inflammation. In our minds, however, these diseases are not related to depression, while according to Stephen Ilardi, half of people suffering from depression have high levels of inflammation.  A large group of people with depression have high levels of systemic inflammation, says Ilardi. He and his colleagues also recognize that the influence of sugar on microbial stores can be a potential factor in depression.

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Our bodies are home to more than 10 billion microbes, and many of them know how to hack into the brain. The symbiotic microbial species, the beneficial microbes, essentially mislead our brains to improve our well-being. They want us to flourish so that they can flourish too. However, some opportunistic species – which can be considered parasites – are not working in our interest at all. Many of these parasitic microbes thrive on added sugars and can produce chemicals that push the brain into a state of anxiety, stress and depression. They are also highly inflammatory.

The researcher recommends a diet low in processed products, rich in plant-based foods and omega-3 fatty acids, to optimize the psychological benefits our body could get from them. Sugar should be consumed in low quantities all year round, and not just during the winter period.


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