Research shows a link between excessive intake of sugar and an increase in incident mood disorders

A double-triple-mocha-latte with extra whip to start your morning. A chocolate chip cookie to cheer up your lunch break. And don’t forget a sip of your favorite brown-fizzy cola drink to keep you going through the afternoon. If you can’t get through the day without satisfying your sweet tooth, you are not alone. Americans reportedly consume 17 teaspoons of added sugars every day, which corresponds to about 270 additional calories. There’s no denying that excessive consumption of sugar can lead to a variety of issues, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay. But could sugar also make you sad? The answer might surprise you!

Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar

While both natural sugar and added sugar provide energy to the body, there are significant differences between them in terms of their nutritional value and effects on our health. Natural sugar occurs naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. It is derived from the carbohydrates found in these foods and is essential for our body’s energy and metabolism.

On the other hand, added sugar is the type that is added to food during the manufacturing process. It is typically found in things like processed foods, baked goods, soft drinks, and sweets. It contains calories and carbohydrates but lacks significant nutritional value. Added sugars can usually be found in processed foods and beverages, but it may not always be easy to spot them on a nutritional label. They can be hiden under a variety of different names, such as high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, and maltose. These sugars are often added to enhance flavor, stability, or texture but provide little to no nutritional value.

One key difference between natural sugar and added sugar is their calorie content. Natural sugars are naturally present in certain foods, and their calorie content is relatively balanced when compared to the fiber and nutrient content. Fruits, for example, contain natural sugar and fiber, vitamins, and minerals essential for good health. However, foods with added sugars often contain higher calories than their fiber and nutrient content, leading to the consumption of “empty calories” that are processed quickly by the body, leaving you feeling hungry shortly after eating these foods.

The Roller Coaster Effect

Another difference is the effect on blood glucose levels. Natural sugars found in whole, unprocessed foods are processed more slowly by our bodies, which means glucose is released more slowly into the bloodstream, providing a steady source of energy. However, added sugars, especially those found in processed foods, are often consumed in large amounts and can rapidly increase blood glucose levels. This is because consuming excessive amounts of added sugar triggers a surge of insulin to reduce blood sugar levels.

You may have felt this if you’ve ever been halfway into a large chocolate shake and started getting a “sugar high.” You might feel jittery and experience a surge of energy as your blood sugar levels climb up. Once insulin gets to work, those sugar levels drop rapidly, making you feel drowsy, sluggish, and much less energetic. While it is true that ingesting sugar can lead to temporary feelings of pleasure and improved mood, the habit of consuming excessive amounts of sweet foods and beverages may also make mood disorders worse. This is because sugar impacts the production of two important chemicals in our brains – dopamine and serotonin.

The Happy Hormones

A neurotransmitter is essentially a chemical messenger that enables your body to send a message from one brain cell (neuron) to another. Dopamine and serotonin are two different types of chemicals that work as neurotransmitters.

Why is this important? Because sugar consumption has been known to stimulate dopamine activity, which leads to the temporary increase of certain chemicals such as endorphins. Endorphins promote positive feelings and lower stress. The problem is these feelings are temporary. The more our bodies rely on dopamine production to find happiness and comfort, the less we can produce another key neurotransmitter – serotonin.

Serotonin plays a crucial role in regulating mood, sleep, appetite, and overall well-being. It is often referred to as the “happy hormone” because it contributes to feelings of happiness, contentment, and relaxation. When serotonin levels are balanced, they help stabilize our mood and promote a sense of emotional well-being. Many antidepressant medications target the production of serotonin in order to help patients struggling with clinical depression and anxiety.

The problem is that relying on the constant activation of dopamine pathways to achieve feelings of happiness can lead to a reduction of serotonin levels in the long run. In this regard, consuming sugar in order to feel better has a similar effect as addictive drugs such as cocaine – the initial effect is rewarding but fleeting, and for some, it may be accompanied by cravings and negative feelings. What does this all mean? In simple terms, sugar really can make you feel better temporarily, but those positive feelings fade quickly, and you might find yourself feeling worse than before and craving even more sugar.

Is Sugar Really Making You Sad?

A recent study investigated the link between excessive consumption of sugar and the worsening of mental health issues, including depression, so it sugar making you sad. According to the study, the average American consumes three times the recommended level of added sugar, and the consumption of sweet foods and beverages with added sugar makes up as much as three-quarters of the sugar intake.

Researchers conducting the study analyzed the effect of sugar consumption in over 23,000 individuals in a 5-year period. They found that higher sugar intake appeared to have an adverse effect on the mental health of male and female participants of ages between 39 and 83, and the negative effects were also observed 5 years later. Their study also found an increased probability of incident common mental disorder in men and recurrent depression in both sexes associated with higher intakes of sugar due to the consumption of sweet food and beverages.

Life Can Still Be Sweet

If you have a sweet tooth and can’t live without your daily dose of the sugary stuff, do not panic! Like everything in life, the secret is awareness and moderation. If having that piece of candy after a meal or chomping on a chocolate bar at the end of a hard day are things you cannot live without, all you need to do is to be aware of how much more added sugar may be hiding in your diet, and then take steps to reduce your intake of high-sugar processed foods without giving up your favorite sweet treats.

Here are some tips to help you reduce your added sugar intake:

  • Read food labels carefully. Be aware of the amount of added sugar in packaged foods and beverages. Look for labels that specify how much sugar has been added and choose products with lower levels of added sugar when possible. Sugar may even be hiding in several savory products, such as tomato sauce and ketchup!
  • Reduce your intake of sugary drinks. Sodas, fruit juices, and sports drinks often contain high amounts of added sugar. Keep track of how many of these beverages you consume every day. If you must have your daily cola or lemon-lime soda, try slowly swapping just one serving of soda at a time with another beverage such as water, unsweetened tea, or other sugar-free alternatives.
  • Limit desserts and snacks. Desserts and snacks often contain large amounts of sugar. When you are hungry, try filling up on healthier alternatives such as fresh fruit, nuts, or sugar-free snack bars before reaching for your usual sugary snack. You may find that healthy foods help you feel full, which leads to you eating smaller portions of dessert foods. That way, you can still have your sweet treat while giving your body the nutrients and fiber it needs to maintain a steady blood glucose level and avoid sugar crashes.
  • Eat whole, unprocessed foods. Whole, unprocessed foods contain minimal added sugars and are naturally nutritious. Focus on eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources. These may also help you reduce your sugar cravings.
  • Cook at home more often. Preparing meals at home allows you to control the amount of added sugar in your dishes. If you don’t enjoy cooking, look for alternatives such as your grocery store’s salad bar or healthy meal kits that can be purchased online.

The bottom line is not that any and all sugar is bad for you, but that the excessive consumption of added sugars is the real enemy. It is true that desserts and sweets can even play an important role in recovery from addiction, and there’s no reason why you should stop reaching for that candy bar to reward yourself or as a way to cope with a stressful situation. The secret is to be aware of what else in your diet contains added sugars you may not even know about, and substitute those items with healthier alternatives. That way, you can keep satisfying your sweet tooth without compromising your physical and mental health.

Start Mental Health Treatment at Plus by APN

Remember, if you are struggling with depression or any other form of mental health problems, Plus By APN has all the resources you need to get your symptoms under control. Our mental health professionals use an integrated approach that goes well beyond the traditional combination of therapy and medication. Our treatment plans are individualized and include cutting edge tools such as ketamine-assisted therapy and nutrition plans to treat the whole body and get to the root cause of your disorder. Call 424.644.6486 or fill out our online contact form to learn more.


  • “Added Sugar.” The Nutrition Source, 2 Feb. 2023,,from%20processed%20and%20prepared%20foods.
  • Knüppel, Anika et al. “Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study.” Scientific reports vol. 7,1 6287. 27 Jul. 2017, doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7
  • “Sugar May Be Stealing Your Happiness.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, Accessed 4 Feb. 2024.