The Connection Between Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome, Sugar and Depression

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM

Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) is a condition resulting from adrenal exhaustion that affects many adults in the U.S. It is broad spectrum and non-specific, and many times debilitating symptoms are often overlooked by conventional medicine. Recent studies suggest that the correlation between sugar and depression often plague those suffering from AFS.

Sugar and Depression

The connection between sugar and depression is likely a result of metabolic-nutritional problems, which is one of the clear causes of AFS. Stress, an improperly functioning hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and immune system dysfunction are other frequent causes of AFS.

When under stress, the body activates the HPA axis naturally in an effort to handle the stress and its effects. Located on top of the kidneys,the adrenal glands are an integral part of this process. They release a hormone called cortisol to fight stress.

Over time, especially if stress levels continue or increase, the adrenals are able to release less and less cortisol. With lower levels of cortisol, the body is not able to handle stress.

One way cortisol serves to help the body deal with stress and reduce adrenal fatigue is to keep blood sugar levels normal. When sugar is consumed (in any of its many forms), blood sugar increases. With insufficient cortisol, blood sugar levels continue to increase.

Cortisol is also important in controlling inflammation. Both blood sugar levels and inflammation are increased with higher refined sugar intake and are seen in depression as well.

Increased stress and reduced adrenal functioning may both lead to fatigue, lower energy, and other symptoms of depression. Research strongly suggests increased sugar intake leads to the same symptoms. A more comprehensive understanding of how the body functions systemically is needed to treat stress, depression, and AFS.

A more comprehensive viewpoint is seeing the stress response from a NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response or systemic view. In this way of looking at stress and our response to it, all body systems are considered. These systems of the body are interrelated. What affects one, affects all.

Thus, when the body is under stress and the adrenals are affected, so are the other parts of the body. The immune system is triggered – due to increased inflammation – when the body is under stress and the pancreas reacts due to the metabolic response. These two areas are also activated when the intake of sugar increases and depression is present.

This means these two body systems may respond to the intake of sugar and depression in the same way it responds to stress. Because so much of our processed foods are loaded with sugar, our bodies may be under constant stress due to food intake. Just one more reason to be concerned about sugar and depression – the most prevalent mental health issue today.

Sugar and Depression: Carbs Increase the Risk

Refined carbohydrates, including sugar, are not comfort foods. In fact, they may lead to a condition that is very uncomfortable: depression. But these refined carbs are found in many of the foods we consume daily. It’s very hard to avoid them.

A recent study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed the 70,000 women participating in the study to have had a higher chance of developing an issue with sugar and depression – if they ate refined carbs. In the body, these carbs are changed to sugar naturally, leading to higher glycemic indexes. The glycemic index is a formula showing the way foods affect blood sugar levels. When foods like white bread, sweets, and sodas are consumed, the glycemic index rises.

This study also showed women whose diet contained foods higher in fiber (including fruits and vegetables) had less chance of developing depression.

Other studies have supported these findings. The hormonal effects of sugar intake contribute to the increased chance of depression.

Eating refined carbs leads to blood sugar spikes. These spikes lead to the release of cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones are included in the body’s response to stress as well. Added to these hormones is an increase in inflammation with increased sugar intake. Inflammation has been implicated in the development of depression and other mood disorders.

A 2004 study showed a strong connection between the amount of sugar you eat and your chances of developing depression and/or schizophrenia. This British study reinforced the link between sugar consumption, increased inflammation, and the development of depression. It also suggested a dietary element is necessary within any treatment regimen for depression to be effective. It appears that inflammation interrupts the optimum functioning of our immune system and can possibly lead to greater chances of developing depression.

Another recent study – involving postpartum depression specifically – strongly indicated inflammation as being the most important underlying factor in depression. With sugar being a primary driving force in inflammation, the consumption of sugar can also be seen as a driver of depression.

So, the question you may be asking: Is the answer to averting depression and avoiding inflammation as well as stimulating the body’s stress response as simple as avoiding carbs? No. Not all carbohydrates are that simple.

Clearly, this research, as well as many other research findings, shows the connection between eating refined carbs and developing depression. Along with other health issues and their connections however, it does not mean you have to cut carbs out completely.

Change the kinds of carbs you eat and avoid the health risks mentioned above. Instead of refined carbs like white bread and white rice, choose complex carbohydrates. You can find these in a variety of foods. Beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have the kind of carbs that are beneficial to your health.

Consuming refined carbohydrates leads to fast release of sugar and to blood sugar spikes. Eating the complex carbs means you will have slower released sugar in the body. Your body systems will have more time to deal with the sugars adequately to prevent the spikes and the release of cortisol and adrenaline.

Eating these foods may decrease the risk of developing depression, as well as adrenal fatigue. Slow released sugars can be handled by the pancreas in a normal fashion that does not put the body in a stress response mode. In fact, this study also suggested the possibility of dietary changes – to include complex carbs as a treatment type and possibly a preventative measure for depression. More research is needed to determine the efficacy of such a treatment.

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© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Sugar and depression