We all know that sugar’s not good for us. Even if we’ve yet to kick our sugar habit, most of us can list its major health consequences, like weight gain, fatigue, and skin issues. But sugar can affect your health in more insidious ways, too. New findings have linked high sugar intake to symptoms of depression.

Which Came First, Depression or Higher Sugar Intake? 

While prior studies have shown sugar makes you depressed and anxious, a study published November 2016 in Scientific Reports was the first to suggest that mood disorders do not actually come first, as had previously been hypothesized. The researchers analyzed the possibility that preexisting mood disorders caused participants to eat more sugar, and found no evidence to uphold that idea. This strengthens the claim that a high-sugar diet is just as bad for your mental health as it is for your physical health.

To tease apart the connections between sugar intake and mood disorders, a team of researchers from University College London (UCL) enrolled 5,000 men and 2,000 women in the five-year study. The researchers collected data on food intake and mood changes using standardized questionnaires given at regular intervals over the course of the study.

They found that a higher sugar intake had a clear negative effect on mental health. For instance, men who consumed more than 67 grams—or slightly over 5 tablespoons—per day were 23 percent more likely to have mental health issues than those who consumed 39.5 grams of sugar or less daily. The associations between high-sugar intake and mood disorders could not be explained by other diet-related factors, socioeconomic factors, or other health conditions. The researchers did note that the link between sugar and depression was significantly stronger for men than for women. They proposed a few reasons why that might be, including that more men were enrolled in the study.

Understanding the Gut-Brain Connection

One reason sugar so strongly influences your mood is the destruction it wreaks in your gut. According to findings published in Gut, a journal put out by the British Medical Association, an increased consumption of sugar has been implicated in many gastrointestinal disorders. The authors found that sugar dramatically impairs gut function, in particular, by adversely impacting bile acid concentrations, digestive enzymes, and gut bacteria.

More than one hundred trillion bacteria microbes (weighing about 4 and a half pounds) live in your gut. That’s as many cells as make up the rest of your body! Most of the bacteria carry out essential, health-promoting activities. As you may know, to get great gut health, you need to nourish those bacteria. However, you also need to starve out the disease-promoting bacteria. And guess what their favorite food is? Yes, that’s right—it’s sugar.

If you’ve ever tried to reduce your sugar intake, you know just how hard it is. The sugar-addicted yeasts and bacteria in our guts produce byproducts that travel our bloodstreams, cross the blood-brain barrier, and spike cravings for more sweet things.

How to Stop Eating Sugar

Laura Schmidt, sugar scientist and professor of health policy at the University of California, San Francisco, offers these three tips to help you stop eating sugar.

  • Cut out sugary drinks: it may not be easy to bid adieu to a favorite beverage, but this step alone can seriously reduce your sugar intake. “If we can all get ourselves off the sugary drinks,” says Schmidt, “we would be lowering our total sugar consumption, on a population level, by almost half.”
  • Be wary of foods that come in bags, boxes, and cans: almost all processed foods, even ones we think of as savory, contain sugar. Snacks labeled “organic” and “healthy” may still be loaded with plenty of the sweet stuff. Before purchasing prepackaged food, be sure to read the ingredient list carefully!
  • Form a supportive community: food is more than fuel, it’s also a vital part of our social lives. Choosing not to eat sugar can be extra challenging when friends or co-workers encourage you to try a sweet treat or judge you for abstaining. Counterbalance those pressures by seeking out likeminded individuals who support your decision.

How to Truly Detox from Sugar

Cutting out sugar may not completely undo the damage already caused by overindulgence. Fortunately, research tells us that certain nutrients can help us rebuild our gut health and even alter the function of our brains! Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles found that increased levels of good gut bacteria benefited the regions of the brain that process emotion and sensation.

If you have a history of eating more sugar carbs than would be ideal, and you’re seeking to restore your gut to a state of optimal health, you’ll want to enlist all the help you can get. To learn about a potent digestive remedy that improves the health of your stomach, liver, and intestines, click here.