Turns out comfort eating may not be all that comforting...
There are lot of things that we all know are going to make our anxiety worse: googling our stomach pain, having to make a phone call, to listing all the (unrealistic) ways our work presentation could go wrong...but treating yourself to a slice of cake or a bar of chocolate, that's only going to make you feel better, right?
Sometimes, yes - chocolate is all you need. But other times, that sweet treat can seriously backfire. Sugar can sneakily cause all sorts of changes that can lead to the opposite of feeling good (anxious).
The problem with sugar is that it causes sugar spikes and drop, which instantly affects your mood. A sugar rush leads to sugar highs which provides energy...and then some. However, the often forgotten about sugar low lead to feeling sluggish and down. But how does the effect your anxiety? Sugar aggravates your anxious feelings because of the way our bodies react to digesting them. Sugar based foods cause your blood sugar to spike, giving you that intense - almost instant high but then crashes faster than they would experience after eating non-high-sugar-foods. This sudden change in energy can make you feel uneasy and at times, can lead the body to mimic a panic attack.
Nobody and no body enjoy being stressed or anxious which is why we feel the need to reach for sugary foods. When you ingest high sugar foods like ice cream, sweets and cake, they release serotonin - which is a 'feel good' hormone. Stress eating is nothing unusual, we all do it. There's something about food that's comforting so when you're feeling stressed and/or anxious, it's only natural to turn to something that's, well, comforting.
What we might not know, is that when the body is stressed and/or anxious, you also have higher levels of cortisol (aka the 'stress hormone'). When this happens, our bodies restrain the release of insulin, the hormone that turns glucose into energy. So when you're eating more sugar to combat your stress, your body stores that excess sugar as fat since you're not turning the glucose from the sugar into energy.
Not following the white lab coat lingo? Us either. Simply put, eating more sugar when you are stressed and/or anxious just amplifies the amount of sugar your body would naturally have and therefore contributes to more severe drops of blood sugar and even severer drops in your mood.
This sugar and anxiety roller coaster isn’t just relegated to the daytime hours either. High sugar foods can keep you awake due to the energy they release which prevents the body's natural stress-booster of sleep from taking over. As we all know, a lack of sleep can leave us feeling even more anxious and stressed because our body missed an opportunity to process the emotions naturally. When you go into a new day with less sleep, you have less energy and therefore heightened stress and anxiety. And what do we reach to when we feel stressed and anxious? You guessed it: sugar.
Now, none of this is intended to freak you out and make you throw the entire contents of your snack cupboard in the bin. Anxiety can be triggered by many other factors, including - work, family, friends, health, the aforementioned phone calls. So cutting out the chocolate digestives isn't the root of all your anxiety.
But the impact of sugar on anxiety can and does affect everyone -- and if you have an existing anxiety disorder, sugary foods will only aggravate that. Changing your diet to limit high-sugar foods will not treat nor will it cure your anxiety, but it will help manage it better and optimize the times you are feeling good and less anxious.
If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues, Aware provides information and emotional support to those affected. Visit their website or call them between 10 am and 10 pm, seven days a week at 1800 80 48 48.
Main image by Simona Todorova