Depression or mood issues? It could be sugar…

As you read this I’m en route to Brisbane to present at the Happiness & It’s Causes conference…and to interview His Holiness The Dalai Lama for Channel Seven. As fate would have it, I’m chairing the presentation and panel discussion at the conference on Friday that sugar expert David Gillespie is doing – Eating Your Way to Health and Happiness. Any of you coming?

Picture 18 Depression or mood issues? It could be via

If you’re not going to be there… you might enjoy this. David shares why fructose makes us unhappy. I can personally vouch for the connection. I’ve been so very very much more stable since I quit sugar. Every now and then I’ve “tested” things by eating a bit of chocolate or having some honey in my chai. The effect is IMMEDIATE. I’m buzzy-grumpy. And I get ulcers. And I bloat. And it takes 24 hours for things to settle. It’s no big deal. Our bodies do detox the stuff out overnight. But I get the lesson clearly: not worth the pain.

Anyway…David’s thoughts (annotated a little by me):

Even seeing food improves our mood. This is because the anticipation of a feed, fires up the hormones responsible for how we feel. The sight (or smell) of food gives us a squirt of the pleasure hormone, dopamine.

  • Dopamine focuses our attention, makes us think more clearly and helps us move faster and more effectively. It’s an important signal to our body that we are in for something good and we need to pay attention. And that was probably pretty handy in times gone by (when dinner was on the hoof rather than in the burger box)
  • Once we actually start eating, serotonin kicks in. The serotonin makes us feel happier and less stressed. We relax, our mood improves (Fluffy will still be road kill, but we’ll feel better about it) and our minds can turn to less important things than eating (such as sex – the anticipation of which will give us another dopamine hit and the aftermath of which will give us a nice relaxing seratonin hit).

Researchers have known for a long time that severe depression is strongly associated with an inability to properly absorb serotonin in the brain. No (or low) serotonin absorption makes it much harder for us to come back from unhappiness. And this can translate into anxiety and depression if it’s sustained for long enough. The primary anti-depressant drugs available in Australia (Cipramil, Luvox, Prozac, Lovan, Aropax and Zoloft) all work by targeting the serotonin system.  They give the brain more time to absorb the serotonin. Some other drugs (Ecstasy, Amphetamines and LSD) work by enhancing the amount of serotonin we produce (but you might find it tricky to get a prescription for them).

  • If all is well with our hormone system then severe depression should be an extremely rare disease.

But most studies suggest that one in ten of us is suffering some form of depression at any given time.

  • Something is messing with our serotonin system and the evidence is starting to mount that the something is fructose. Fructose is the only carbohydrate which produces a significant spike in our cortisol levels.

Cortisol is our stress hormone. It’s terribly handy for confrontations with unexpected bears (for example) because it ramps up dopamine (to focus the mind and sharpen the movements). It also rapidly increases the amount of dopamine we can absorb. But it does so at the expense of our ability to absorb serotonin. We like dopamine. It is our reward drug.

  • Frequent hits of fructose mean frequent hits of dopamine. This leads inevitably to fructose addiction and that is exactly the mechanism used by other man-made opiods (like nicotine and  cocaine).
  • The trouble is that it seems the upregulating of dopamine at the expense of serotonin can become hard-wired if we allow it to go on for long enough. And once we’re addicted, we cant help but let it go on for long enough.

We don’t run into that many bears on a daily basis (well, I don’t). Fructose was once about as common as a bear encounter, but is now embedded in almost every processed food we buy. And it has an addictive quality as powerful as nicotine (so it isn’t exactly going to harm sales now is it?). We are now on a constant drip of fructose. That means we are on a constant cortisol (and therefore dopamine) high. This in turn continuously impairs our ability to absorb serotonin, the one substance that can turn our mood around. Fluffy will still become a bumper sticker if he chooses an inopportune moment to cross the freeway and that will probably be a downer. But the science is suggesting that how quickly (or if) we bounce back from that may depend (to a large extent) on how much fructose we are eating. In an environment of non-stop fructose infusion, the wonder is not that one in ten of us is depressed, it’s that nine in ten of us aren’t (yet).

What do you think? Make sense? Happiness is a lot about hormone balance. Does knowing that sugar could be THE thing to be mucking with your chemical balance make quitting sugar more…important?

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