Is sugar messing with your mood? Find out how sugar affects your body and mind

The sweet stuff is part of our daily lives, and most of us will admit we ought to eat less of it, but it might be playing on more than just your conscience, says Hannah Bellis

Hand holding jelly citrus slices

Hot sticky toffee puddings slathered in custard, homemade cakes in trendy cafés, nostalgic white mice from old-fashioned sweet shops… in my eyes, sugar was good for the soul.

Advertisement

But while my heart was sold, my waistline reflected my habit, and when my sugar consumption began to affect my skin, I realised it was a problem.

Last year, I developed an odd cluster of tiny red dots on the left side of my chin. Within eight weeks, this rash had spread around my face. The doctor said that my skin was reacting to bacteria that is always present on human skin, which indicated that something was out of balance.

“How many times a week do you have sugar?” he asked me. I told him five (a massive underestimation). He advised going zero-therapy on my face (no products besides water and a gel he was prescribing) – and to go sugar-free.

“Nothing sweet,” he said, like it was that simple. “No fruit, no honey, no white carbohydrates.”

Hannah Bellis
Hannah Bellis
Philip Sowels

I’ve been cleansing and moisturising since I was 13, but the prospect of going product-free was nothing compared to the idea of giving up sugar. However, my crusty face was killing my confidence – I knew I’d have to embrace it. I equipped myself with plenty of wholewheat staples, bought an impressive supply of cheese, and prepared for a few weeks of abstinence.

That first weekend we ate hot smoked mackerel salad, eggs and bacon, homemade wholemeal bread and cheese, unsweetened yogurt with nuts and seeds, beef ragù with wholewheat pasta, and cashew nuts or almond butter snacks.

As I was not calorie restricting, I was never hungry, but because of that I wasn’t ready for the craziness and despair I experienced from about hour 12.

After three days, I hit crisis point. At first, it felt like really bad PMT. I was touchy, quick to anger, but also felt incredibly low.

Usually, I’m a positive person, but for those three days I was stuck in a negative spiral, where the smallest little thing had me tumbling into despair. I also felt a strong urge to eat, and consumed very unhealthy amounts of wholemeal toast and butter – far more than I would normally eat.

Angelique Panagos
Angelique Panagos, author of The Balance Plan
Sidey Clark

How to cope with sugar withdrawal

Nutritionist Angelique Panagos, author of The Balance Plan; 6 Steps to Optimize Your Hormonal Health, says that in fact, this is a very normal side effect of coming off sugar. “Make sure you’re eating good-quality protein, fats and carbohydrates to really nourish the body, but if you still find yourself more hungry in those first few days, allow yourself to eat a bit more,” she advises.

“We’re so used to filling in the gap between meals with sugary treats that when we cut them out, our bodies realise we don’t normally leave big gaps – it’s fine to add a place-holder in those first few days.”

Knowing that I could expect these symptoms and that they would pass was a key part in beating the sugar cycle. It is a form of withdrawal, Angelique explains: “Eating sugar stimulates the opiate and dopamine receptors in the brain to bring a feeling of calm and pleasure – we can get addicted to that feeling.

“But withdrawal is a short-lived period, and the benefits are going to far outweigh that.”

Understanding the negative effects that sugar has on the body also gave me the motivation to get through those first few days, including obesity and mood swings.

“When we eat a lot of sugar it gives us this sugar high, then it brings us crashing down, dropping us like a hot potato. That roller coaster energy hit causes erratic moods and leaves you feeling drained,” Angelique explains.

“Sugar can also lead to digestive concerns. Large amounts of sugar feed the bad bacteria in the gut, leading to increased inflammation, which is the cause of many illnesses. Studies have also shown links between inflammation and depression.”

It’s the effect that sugar has on our hormones that most interests Angelique.  “Sugar really affects our hormones. The insulin increase due to high-sugar food causes the ovaries to secrete more testosterone, increasing anxiety and irritability,” she explains.

“Sugar also has knock-on effects on our stress hormone cortisol. We don’t need it – we’re stressed enough as it is!”

Claire Wright of Add Some Veg
Claire Wright Photography

How to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet

Another issue with sugar is that many of us believe we are eating far less than we actually are. “I always thought my diet was pretty healthy,” says Claire Wright, who now runs Add Some Veg.

“I enjoyed cooking and baking, so most of what we ate was homemade. But a few months after our first child was born, I stumbled across Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar and decided to give it a read. I was suddenly aware that my diet was crammed full of sugar in various forms. I wanted to change that.”

Claire says that eating less sugar has helped boost her immune system, which has been weakened by chemotherapy, and made her chronic stomach pains disappear overnight.

“We have more energy, clearer skin, and less mood swings,” she says, reporting on the benefits her family now enjoy from their low-sugar lifestyle.

It’s been six months since I quit sugar. The tiny dots on my skin have not quite disappeared, but they are much smaller and have retreated to a point where I don’t think anyone but me would notice them. I have also lost five kilos! I’ve had refined sugar on two occasions – a free pancake dessert with stewed blueberries at my favourite café, and a piece of a colleague’s impressive chocolate cake.

I didn’t notice a massive crash after the blueberries, but felt horrendous after the chocolate cake. With this in mind, I’m planning to introduce some fruit back into my diet in the long-term, but to stay off refined sugar.

I like the stability of energy and emotion that I’ve found on a low sugar diet far more than I liked the sickly taste of that cake. For me, life really is sweeter without the sugar.

Listen to the In The Moment Magazine podcast

We caught up with Hannah to find out how she coped with cutting out sugar on the In The Moment Magazine podcast.

Advertisement

Listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Acast.

This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine, issue 8. Discover our latest subscription offer, or buy back issues online.