Are Caffeine and Sugar Contributing to Your Depression?

coffee

It’s kind of like the chicken or the egg question: which came first, depression and coping by using caffeine and sugar or, caffeine and sugar usage and then depression?


We see television commercials, read magazine ads, and hear radio announcements all telling us about the latest and greatest drug for dealing with depression, but rarely does anyone look at the other contributing factors surrounding this condition.

Please know that I am not anti-medication. I hold to the firm belief that medications can, and does, help those struggling with depression. I was on Zoloft (a common anti-depressant) for nine years of my life. Then I began to study nutrition in order to help not only myself, but also counseling clients who came to my office, and what I learned astounded me.

Here I will insert another disclaimer: I do not believe that nutrition holds all the answers to overcoming depression. There are many other factors that play into the blackness that hovers over so many: loss, grief, anger, medical problems, abuse issues… depression is multifaceted and there is no one cure for it. Nutrition is simply one part of the equation.

With all that said, I also believe that depression is too quickly treated with just medication and that mental health professionals look at every aspect that may contribute to depression, but regularly leave a vital dimension out, namely, that of the role of nutrition. Even more specifically, the role that our caffeine and sugar consumption play in the epidemic facing America today.

“America Runs on Dunkin’”

It’s a great logo, but one that should make us pause. Dunkin Donuts reported that they sell approximately 2.7 million cups of coffee a day, and the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the average American drinks almost 24 gallons of coffee a year.

What is the attraction to this black beverage? Taste plays a role, to be sure, but even more than that, exhausting lifestyles is a chief motivator in caffeine dependence. The more we have to accomplish in a day, the more coffee we drink to keep us going. The trouble is, we’re just adding to the already existent stress of our lifestyle when we consume caffeine.

In a report done by CBS News, during a study done at Duke University Medical Center over the course of 15 years, doctors found that caffeine consumption raises blood pressure so high that it increases stroke and heart attack risk by 20 to 30 percent:

“‘Half of the adult population in this country are regular coffee drinkers… drinking an average of three to four cups of coffee a day,’ says Dr. Lane. ‘That might be 100 million people who are putting themselves at great risk of a heart attack, a stroke or early death as a result of the coffee drinking they do….

“‘This really could be a constant daily circle,’ says Dr. Lane. ‘They wake up in withdrawal until they have caffeine. They use caffeine to get themselves going through this stressful, fast-paced day. But the drug is actually increasing the wear and tear on their body that the stressful life causes. I think people would be healthier if they weren’t drinking coffee regularly.’”

How Caffeine Works

Caffeine blocks a brain chemical called adenosine, which is what helps us go to sleep. This causes our cells to speed up, which in turn triggers the pituitary gland to think there is an emergency occurring. In order to respond to the supposed emergency, the pituitary gland then releases hormones that help bring about adrenaline. This surge of adrenaline speeds up the heart, making us feel full of energy and jittery.

In addition to this adrenaline release, a dopamine release is also brought about by the consumption of caffeine.  Dopamine accesses the part of our brain that feels pleasure. A bit sobering is the fact that certain drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, also increase dopamine levels. Caffeine is doing the same thing to our brains that drugs do, only at a lower level.  Because of this dopamine release, not only do we feel energetic, but we also feel upbeat and even cheerful after consuming caffeine.

Let’s think about this for a minute. If we are putting a chemical into our body that suppresses the brain chemical we use for sleep, helps release adrenaline, and brings about “happy feelings”, what will eventually result?  That which goes up, must come down, right?  That’s exactly what happens. What do we do when we “come down”?  We go back to the very thing that will help us go up again — drink more caffeine.

Caffeine and Sugar Combined

What does coffee usually get accompanied with? A cookie, coffee cake, a donut, a brownie — foods laden with sugar.

When we put sugar into our bodies the pancreas sends out insulin to help clear it out of our system. The cleaning out is a good thing, though at the same time, insulin also triggers the body to store fat, which is not a good thing! (For more on the negative impact sugar has on our body, check out “Sugar’s effect on your health”.) The trouble is, a sugar overload results in an insulin overload that cleans out our system to the point that our blood sugar plummets. At that point, we find ourselves moody and craving sugar (or carbohydrates), so we indulge again, usually consuming more than before, and the entire cycle repeats itself.

Like caffeine, sugar also stimulates the release of dopamine. ABC had a fascinating article on the effects of sugar in lab rats, in which they not only became addicted to the high sugar given to them, but they also wanted to consume more with each day that passed.

Where am I going with all this scientific mumbo-jumbo? It’s an observation made on my own life, as well as all my nutrition study. Consuming caffeine and sugar gives us a high. It gives us an energy high from adrenaline and an emotional high from dopamine hitting the pleasure center of our brain. But a high always ends eventually. After the high ends, we are left with feelings of lethargy and depression:What is wrong with me? we wonder? I’m always so tired and hopeless feeling.

We assume that we must be struggling with depression, never having it occur to us that perhaps it is the constant highs and lows of our caffeine and sugar consumption that is contributing to our feelings of sadness and low energy.

When I finally went off Zoloft it was after almost a year of eating disorder recovery. While mostly anorexic for close to 10 years, I did have periodic bulimic binges that consisted of high volumes of sugary foods. When in anorexic mode, I lived on coffee and caffeine pills.

After stabilizing my eating to consist of low-sugar foods and going through a horrendous withdrawal process from caffeine, I began to notice a gradual upswing in my emotional and mental state. Eventually, with my doctor’s approval, I was able to go off of Zoloft.

This does not mean that decreasing one’s sugar and caffeine consumption automatically results in being able to go off medication. Not at all! As stated earlier, there are other things affecting depression, and these things also need to be dealt with.

I only drink 1 cup of coffee a day, and that is “lite” coffee at that, and I rarely eat sugary foods. Still, even I struggle with depression, sometimes worse than others, despite my healthy eating habits. I have monthly plummets, and living in New York state results in January through March struggles that overwhelm at times.

However, as tedious as these struggles are with the “black tide”, as I call it, they are not half as extreme as they once were when I was filling my body in an endless cycle of caffeine and sugar. Depression has to be treated with a multifacted approach, and for me, a large part of that approach is to stay away from substances that create false highs which only emphasize the lows when they come.

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