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I Gave Up Sugar For 6 Weeks In An Attempt To Improve My Mental Health

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Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
It’s fairly difficult in today’s world to have missed the memo about sugar; depending where you look (on Instagram), sugar is either as bad for you as saturated fat and/or as addictive as crack cocaine. But quitting sugar isn’t just the latest celebrity weight loss fad, there is also a lot of evidence that sugar can have a negative impact on our mental health. A study conducted between the years 1994 and 1998 tested 70,000 post-menopausal women, none of whom had depression at the start of the trial, and concluded that added sugars were highly associated with depression. This study was re-investigated by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year and it concluded that people who ate a high GI diet had a higher risk of depression.

I suffer with depression and have been flirting with the idea of quitting refined sugar on and off for about two years. Refined sugar is sugar that has been processed to remove most of its natural nutrients. Think ordinary table sugar or powdered sugars like icing sugar. All food has natural sugar (even vegetables), but unrefined sugar retains its nutrients, meaning it's kind of good for you.

My main reason for wanting to quit sugar is that I want to be Fearne Cotton, who recently released a cookbook full of sugar-free recipes, because, well, who in their right mind doesn’t want to be Fearne Cotton? But I am not in my right mind; I am back on anti-depressants and also beginning to wonder if my relationship with sugar is not just a symptom but also a cause of my bad depression.

To understand how sugar impacts your mental health, I talked to Elspeth Waters, a nutritionist with diplomas in nutritional therapy and naturopathy. Elspeth first became interested in nutrition after a period of chronic ill health and anxiety and decided to study and work in the field once she experienced the benefits of a better diet first hand. She explained: “Sugar is highly toxic and it takes an enormous number of nutrients to metabolise it; nutrients like magnesium - 'nature's tranquiliser' and B-complex vitamins, which – as well as being essential to energy production – keep our minds and moods stable.” In other words, not only is sugar causing our energy levels to spike and crash, it actually uses up our energy resources which has a direct impact on how our brain functions.

eating refined sugars destabilises our blood glucose level, which puts a huge strain on the body

Elsepth Waters, nutritionist
Elspeth also explained to me that "eating refined sugars destabilises our blood glucose level," which, she says, “puts a huge strain on the body and usually the body releases a little too much insulin relative to how much sugar we've taken in, causing our blood glucose to tank just as quickly as it spiked.” That’s why, as science would have it, after the rush of four, yes four, Mars ice creams in a row, I feel shit for the rest of the day and the whole of the next day. “That tank and spike effect adversely affects all other hormonal processes in the body, including our production of happy brain chemicals, the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, and the result is that we usually feel any combination of jittery, irrational, lethargic and depressed.”

To say I’ve experienced this first hand would be an understatement. On a bad depression day, getting out of bed can be a feat as impossible as lifting Thor’s hammer. And yet I will still make the frankly herculean journey across the road to the local shop to stock up on a mountain of sugar, which I will then eat until I feel violently sick. And then wait 20 minutes and then eat some more. I don’t think I need to tell you that this doesn’t actually feel good. Well, okay, it does at the very beginning but I start feeling sick quite quickly and end up curled on the sofa disgusted at myself with yet another reason to feel guilty and down. Which is why, tired of this cycle, and keen to break it, I decided that I would quit all refined sugar for the month of August and see if I felt happier afterwards.

To help me get off on the right foot, I went to the health shop and stocked up on a lot of supplies of coconut palm sugar, maple syrup and started making all the recipes I had saved on my Pinterest, Banana bread a la Fearne Cotton’s Cook Happy, Cook Healthy (obvs) and Lizzie Loves healthy’s Bountiful Bars being some of the highlights. I also made my own vanilla almond milk and nut butter. If you ever want to feel like you have truly achieved something in your life then witnessing the moment the grainy looking mixture turns into nut butter in your food processor is, I imagine, what winning a Pulitzer prize feels like. For the first two weeks I happily ate a refined sugar-free treat every day and felt suitably smug.
Once I had achieved this, I felt confident to take the next step. The I Quit Sugar book by Sarah Wilson, a book which tells you to quit, not just refined sugar, but ALL sugar – even the sugar in things like fruit, kept catching my eye on my book shelf. “Open me, Hannah,” it would whisper, “you know it’s time.” If I can offer you one piece of advice it is this, if a book is talking to you, then open it. And/or call the doctor because your mental health might well have taken a turn for the worse, possibly from a sugar deficiency. I opened the book. “I was a sugar addict, I didn’t look like one… I hid behind the so-called ‘healthy sugars’ like honey, dark chocolate and fruit” said Sarah Wilson on page one.

We had been here before Sarah and I, and frankly I had thought she was being unreasonable. So the several other times I have tried to quit sugar I ignored her advice and quit just refined sugar, like I had been doing up until now. But as I was still spending my day obsessing over when I could have another “good” unrefined sugar treat, I really felt it was time to quit all-sugar (meaning fructose, including all types of fruit) with her eight-week programme. Don’t be alarmed, you don’t quit all of it forever, it’s about wiping the slate clean before starting a healthier relationship with the good sugars. And the thing about a no sugar diet is that it actually means six teaspoons of sugar a day because there is so much sugar in our food that six teaspoons is about as sugar-free as you can get.

Very quickly, after a couple of days, I noticed I wasn’t hungry anymore. I was eating my three meals a day but I was not getting that 11am or 3pm hunger pangs in between. My blood sugar was stable. I found the whole experience really easy. I didn’t even get the horrible dizziness I had experienced the first time I had attempted to quit sugar. And what was stranger still was that I didn’t miss sugar at all. I didn’t even think about it. But maybe that was because I was too busy becoming a walking, talking Instagram account. Making my own breakfast cereal to reduce sugar intake. Oats, almonds, coconut flakes toasted in coconut oil with cinnamon and allspice, served with natural Greek yoghurt.
I was in a terrible mood for these two weeks. I was dog sitting for my favourite dog in the world at the time but even our beautiful walks in the country didn't seem to touch my mood. In fact most days I barely even noticed the countryside as I walked through it. I also had two sofa depression days, both came on really quickly as I sat down at my laptop to work. The first day I opened my laptop after our morning walk and felt a crushing sense of anxiety. I tried to work through it but after an hour I curled up on the sofa and slept the day away. The second day occurred two days later and as soon as I opened my laptop I felt a crushing sadness and I did the same. I have never had a sofa day come on like that before or since. Perhaps my body was reacting to the sugar detox after all.

In my third week of no sugar at all (five weeks into the programme) PMS arrived. Never in my life have I thought about chocolate more than in that week. But not milk chocolate or the Wispa bar that was in the door of my fridge, just dark chocolate, because my taste for sweetness had reduced a great deal. I was tested when at an elderly relative’s house I was handed a slice of orange chocolate tart. I sat with it in front of me thinking that she might not notice I wasn’t eating it if I played with it a bit because I couldn’t be bothered to have The Conversation. It didn’t work. I took a couple of small bites to avoid offending her after she pointed out that I wasn’t eating. Despite the chocolate cravings, it was too sweet and I actually felt unclean afterwards.

Sugar had really lost its appeal by now. I started to see my meals as the real treat and I took more care in planning them and preparing them. It does help that I love cooking and also that cooking helps to calm me when I am stressed (okay I might have stolen that quote from Fearne Cotton – but after she said it I agreed.) I was feeling happier in myself. It had, in fact, been a really stressful few weeks for work and money but I didn’t feel like my depression was biting. Simple tasks like washing dishes become insurmountable when I’m truly depressed but here I was making three meals a day, washing my dishes and not craving a naughty snack every five minutes. I was achieving something even if that was all it was. I can’t say it was definitely down to going sugar-free but it seemed to have an impact.

In the middle of week six, I went on holiday and decided that no one should have a holiday without Gelato, so I ignored Sarah’s eight week no sugar rule and indulged. But now I am back from holiday and all I can think about are vegetables, so I'm back off sugar. Not in a strict way, because if I’ve learned anything it is that it isn’t about doing things by the book, not even if it's Fearne Cotton's book, it’s about doing things by your book. Having quit sugar, I have also learned that a treat doesn’t have to mean something "bad"; it can be fresh clean sheets in a bed to yourself, a well cooked meal, a coffee with a friend, a good book or indulging a craving and then letting it go. When you treat yourself well, feed yourself well and look after yourself, you do feel happier. So yes, quitting my old relationship with sugar has made me happier but it’s just one small part of a much bigger project for me: learning how to look after myself before, during and after a bad depression day.
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