For years I binged on sugar. When my anxiety would peak, I reached for sugar. As the stress of the day would increase, so did my sugar intake. Sugar had the power to calm me one moment, only to turn on me the next.
My anxiety attacks became more frequent, my headaches worsened, my thoughts constantly raced and I awoke each morning feeling like I had clenched my jaw all night long. This roller coaster of high blood sugar followed by a crash worsened my anxiety symptoms and impaired my body's natural ability to cope with stress.
And I'm not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting 31 percent of Americans at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Although the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says that anxiety is very treatable, only 37 percent of patients actually get help.
How Sugar Worsens Anxiety Symptoms
It's an important distinction that while sugar doesn't cause anxiety, it can create changes in your body that may worsen anxiety symptoms or cause feelings that trigger anxiety attacks.
"Your gut, which is also known as your 'second brain,' makes and stores close to 95 percent of your feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin," says William Cole, D.C., who specializes in functional medicine.
Sugar messes with the balance of bacteria in the microbiome of your gut, creating an imbalance between good and bad bacteria, which leads to inflammation. Dr. Cole believes that long-term inflammation causes your brain's immune system to work overtime and contributes to mental health problems like anxiety, depression and fatigue.
And research confirms this association between sugar and anxiety. Cole points to a 2008 and 2009 study (both published in the journal Physiology and Behavior) that found that the more sugar you eat — refined sugar, in particular — the worse your anxiety can be.
What Happened When I Cut Back on Sugar
While cutting back on sugar didn't cure my anxiety, reducing the amount of the addictive ingredient definitely minimized my symptoms and made it easier to deal with stress.
What I found is that my sugar-heavy diet heightened the anxiety that was already there. It didn't create new symptoms or change my diagnosis, but the overconsumption of sugar aggravated my symptoms and made coping with anxiety much harder.
When I started cutting back and even eliminating some sources of sugar, the severity of my symptoms decreased. But it wasn't easy.
If you've been consuming processed sugars daily, giving up the sweet stuff can cause a spike in stress hormones, making you feel irritable and stressed, says Mike Dow, Psy.D., Ph.D., author of the upcoming book "Heal Your Drained Brain." He points to research published in 2014 in the journal Behavioral Brain Research that found that when people withdraw from an unhealthy, blood sugar-spiking Western diet, the genes that affect stress are altered.
"When rats went from an unhealthy diet to a healthier one, cortisol spikes resulted," he says. "This highlights the fact that we can truly be addicted to unhealthy food, and withdrawal symptoms result when you try to cut back."
Because of the power sugar has on our moods, Dr. Cole says that cutting back is one of the first steps to dealing with anxiety. "When you take out these refined sugars, your gut will start to heal and inflammation will be reduced," he says.
It can take anywhere from 12 to 24 months for an adult gut to be fully healed. But, in general, Dr. Cole says he sees some level of progress with his patients who have anxiety every single month.
Uma Naidoo, M.D., who is considered the mood-food expert at Harvard Medical School, says your body will need some time to adjust to the reduction of sugar. "If you are otherwise healthy and cut back on processed sugar, you may feel your anxiety improving slowly because you may experience fewer ups and downs caused by the excess sugar."
Read more: 5 Easy Ways to Cut Down on Sugar
Other Anxiety-Busting Lifestyle Changes
Dr. Naidoo says that people who suffer from anxiety need to avoid several common triggers: low blood sugar, poor hydration, use of alcohol, drinking caffeine and smoking (nicotine in cigarettes).
She recommends an integrated approach when treating anxiety, including talk therapy, medications prescribed by your doctor, mindfulness exercises, stress relief, good sleep hygiene, reducing sugar and processed foods and an overall balanced diet that includes foods rich in zinc, magnesium, vitamin B, omega-3 fatty acids and probiotic foods.
Both Dr. Naidoo and Dr. Dow recommend a Mediterranean diet (which advocates for less sugar and more fish, veggies, beans, whole fruit and olive oil) to people looking to get off sugar while also easing anxiety symptoms. A 2017 study found that this way of eating doesn't just prevent mood symptoms, it can even treat them.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you struggle with anxiety? Do you notice that sugar worsens your symptoms? Have you tried to cut back on your sugar intake? Did you notice any changes in your symptoms? Have you made any other dietary changes? Share your stories, suggestions and questions in the comments below!