Depression. Image Source: IANS News

New York, Dec 13 : Like any holiday season, you are once again surrounded by sugar plum pudding, chocolate cakes and sweet treats, but skipping those this time will help you ward off depressive illness especially if you are prone to depression, suggest researchers.

Eating added sugars -- common in so many holiday foods -- can trigger metabolic, inflammatory and neurobiological processes tied to depressive illness, said the study from a team of clinical psychologists at the University of Kansas published in the journal Medical Hypotheses.

Coupled with dwindling light in wintertime and corresponding changes in sleep patterns, high sugar consumption could result in a "perfect storm" that adversely affects mental health.

"For many people, reduced sunlight exposure during the winter will throw off circadian rhythms, disrupting healthy sleep and pushing five to 10 per cent of the population into a full-blown episode of clinical depression," said Stephen Ilardi, associate professor of clinical psychology.

Ilardi, who co-authored the study with Daniel Reis (lead author), Michael Namekata, Erik Wing and Carina Fowler (now of Duke University), said these symptoms of "winter-onset depression" could prompt people to consume more sweets.

"One common characteristic of winter-onset depression is craving sugar," he said.

Avoidance of added dietary sugar might be especially challenging because sugar offers an initial mood boost, leading some with depressive illness to seek its temporary emotional lift.

When we consume sweets, they act like a drug.

"They have an immediate mood-elevating effect, but in high doses they can also have a paradoxical, pernicious longer-term consequence of making mood worse, reducing well-being, elevating inflammation and causing weight gain," said Ilardi.

The investigators reached their conclusions by analysing a wide range of research on the physiological and psychological effects of consuming added sugar.

It might be appropriate to view added sugar, at high enough levels, as physically and psychologically harmful, akin to drinking a little too much liquor.

"Alcohol is basically pure calories, pure energy, non-nutritive and super toxic at high doses. Sugars are very similar. We're learning when it comes to depression, people who optimise their diet should provide all the nutrients the brain needs and mostly avoid these potential toxins," Ilardi explained.

The researchers found inflammation is the most important physiological effect of dietary sugar related to mental health and depressive disorder.

"We know that inflammatory hormones can directly push the brain into a state of severe depression. So, an inflamed brain is typically a depressed brain. And added sugars have a pro-inflammatory effect on the body and brain," said the researchers.

Our bodies host over 10 trillion microbes and many of them know how to hack into the brain.

"Many of those parasitic microbes thrive on added sugars, and they can produce chemicals that push the brain in a state of anxiety and stress and depression. They're also highly inflammatory,a the team wrote.

Ilardi recommended a minimally processed diet rich in plant-based foods and Omega-3 fatty acids for optimal psychological benefit.

As for sugar, observe caution not just during the holidays, but year-round.

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