In recent years, there has been much discussion about the poor state of mental health in the United States — and worldwide. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make matters even worse.
For many of us, anxiety levels are reaching all-time highs as we struggle to cope with the new reality thrust upon us by COVID-19. We might feel irritable, anxious, fatigued or depressed. Perhaps our moods fluctuate throughout the day. All of this is completely normal, and it’s important to accept how we feel. However, there’s a hidden factor that might be contributing to our mental distress: blood sugar.
I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Ann Childers, an Oregon-based psychiatrist and expert in nutritional psychiatry. She began tracking her patients’ blood sugar using continuous glucose monitoring and found that repetitive highs and lows (“the blood sugar roller coaster”) can dramatically impair mental health.
“I’ve seen people diagnosed with conditions like bipolar disorder or attention deficit disorder who have these kinds of blood sugar patterns,” she said. “Once the patterns resolve, they start feeling better.”
How might one prevent the blood sugar roller coaster? According to Dr. Childers, the answer is clear: avoid ultra-processed carbohydrates.
“These kinds of carbohydrates turn into glucose very quickly in the body and cause blood sugar spikes,” she said. “That’s really stressful for the body to manage.”
When blood sugar is too high (hyperglycemia), we can have trouble thinking or concentrating. When it is too low (hypoglycemia), we can feel irritable, anxious or depressed. The body also kicks into fight-or-flight when it senses low blood sugar, pumping out stress hormones like cortisol that signal an emergency.
Dr. Childers said people in a low blood sugar state almost instinctively reach for something that will quickly restore blood sugar — like a bagel or cookie. The body then produces insulin to clear the excess glucose from the blood, blood sugar drops and the cycle begins anew.
“People can have mood swings several times a day that are actually related to eating highly refined carbohydrates,” Dr. Childers said.