Blood sugar and anxiety: Is there a connection?

September 9, 2022
Blood sugar and anxiety: Is there a connection?

You’ve probably heard of the “sugar high,” a concept that goes back as far as the 1920s when W. Ray Shannon, MD linked a child’s bad behavior to sugar consumption. However, the term didn’t hit the mainstream until the 1970s when Dr. Ben Feingold told the anecdote of a boy who went wild after consuming sugar-rich foods. While subsequent studies have provided some support for the existence of sugar highs, whether high blood sugar levels are actually linked to changes in behavior and mental health remains controversial. In this article, we will talk about what anxiety is, the research regarding blood sugar and anxiety, and ways (including dietary choices) to maintain your mental well-being.

One principal conclusion: sugar consumption may be correlated with the onset of anxiety, but other lifestyle and environmental factors play a much bigger role than diet alone.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety disorder is a highly prevalent condition worldwide, impacting an estimated 33.7% of all adults within their lifetime. This condition covers a range of mental health problems that encompasses excess feelings of fear. The many categories within anxiety disorders cover both chronic conditions (such as generalized anxiety disorder) and acute situations such as panic disorder. Regardless, people experiencing anxiety disorder are likely to experience at least one of the following symptoms:

  • Feelings of restlessness, irritability, or impending doom
  • Bodily pain (whether from your head, chest, or your muscles)
  • A pounding or racing heart
  • Impaired cognitive and higher-function abilities

With each of these symptoms, it’s important to distinguish between clinical anxiety and a stress response. The two can easily be confused because they are so intricately linked. Feeling stressed is commonly tied to a specific situation, whereas anxiety doesn’t have a specific sensor tied to it.

Blood sugar and anxiety: what does the research say?

Although the initial research into sugars and the nervous system focused on cognitive functions in children, a growing body of research is focusing on the relationship between blood sugar (glucose) levels and anxiety. The research literature demonstrates that there is some correlation between high sugar consumption and anxiety onset:

While scientific research provides support for this relationship, the mechanisms that explain the processes are varied, numerous and still being clarified:

  • Cravings after eating sugar: Eating foods rich in sugar can activate a series of opioid receptors — those that affect your reward center. When one suddenly stops eating sugar, withdrawal symptoms can arise. Studies done on rat models have demonstrated that hormones associated with stress responses are altered when the animals are withdrawn from a high sugar diet, leading to elevated anxiety. A case study done on a 15-year old female with generalized anxiety showed that eating foods rich in refined sugars resulted in worsened anxiety symptoms tied to low blood sugar levels. These symptoms were improved after she ate a fiber-, protein-, and vegetable-rich diet. The results suggest that the low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) present after a sugar high may contribute more to anxiety than the actual rise in blood sugar levels after eating sugar-rich foods.

Although the research does provide a link between sugar consumption and anxiety onset, none of these studies have considered other lifestyle choices and environmental variables that may have stronger impacts on mental health. A lack of exercise, consumption of foods high in unhealthy fats and added salts (e.g., saturated fatty acids), cigarette and alcohol consumption, and other environmental/lifestyle variables may all play a significant role in triggering or worsening anxiety and other mental health problems.

How can you use your diet to combat anxiety?

While many other factors play a role in anxiety onset, a healthy diet can still go a long way in helping you manage your anxiety. Many of the foods linked with improved mental health are key components of the Mediterranean diet and also plant-based diets.

  • Probiotic foods are rich in microbes that provide benefits to your body, especially the gut. A 2016 systematic review of 10 studies determined that probiotic supplementation can improve anxiety and depressive symptoms. These benefits may stem from the gut-brain axis, a two-way relationship (through an intricate network of nerves) between the gut and nervous system. Consider adding fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir to provide a leg up for your mental health.

You should also think about eating less of or avoiding these foods and drinks altogether: 

  • Sugary desserts: Although foods like cookies, sweet rolls, and ice cream provide an immediate boost to your mood, they can also make you feel worse in the long run — especially if you indulge your sweet tooth too often. Sugary desserts are high in processed sugars which can increase the risk of worsening anxiety.

Use the January AI app to monitor your blood sugar

January AI's app monitors your glucose to help you become more mindful of your lifestyle and eating habits. You only need to wear a CGM (continuous glucose monitor) for 14 days, and January will then continue to provide glucose estimates and insights on an ongoing basis using its sophisticated AI technology. With January, you can control your glucose levels and optimize your health, and see the impact of foods on your blood sugar before you've even eaten them. You can sign up for January's waitlist here.

metabolic health, health benefits of bitter melon

Key takeaways

Concerns about the impact of a high sugar diet have grown alongside the growth of soft drinks and other carbohydrate-rich foods in the Western diet. Factors such as gut inflammation, altered insulin signaling, and the gut-brain axis all play a role in a high-sugar diet — potentially making anxiety worse. However, many confounding variables exist —  including a high-fat diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and other unhealthy behaviors — that complicate this sugar-anxiety relationship. Thus, minimizing the risk of anxiety requires a holistic approach. To better control the dietary influencers, it’s best to up your intake of the many healthy foods that improve your body’s functioning, and in turn your mental health, such as most plant-based foods and seafood. 

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