Added sugars have a pro-inflammatory effect on depressive disorders


If you’re prone to depression, this holiday season you might want to say “bah humbug” to offers of sugar plum pudding, caramel corn and chocolate babka.

A new study from a team of clinical psychologists at the University of Kansas suggests eating added sugars – common in so many holiday foods – can trigger metabolic, inflammatory and neurobiological processes tied to depressive illness. The work is published in the journal Medical Hypotheses.

Coupled with dwindling light in wintertime and corresponding changes in sleep patterns, high sugar consumption could result in a “perfect storm” that adversely affects mental health, according to the researchers.

“For many people, reduced sunlight exposure during the winter will throw off circadian rhythms, disrupting healthy sleep and pushing five to 10% of the population into a full-blown episode of clinical depression,” said Stephen Ilardi, KU associate professor of clinical psychology.

Ilardi, who coauthored the study with KU graduate students Daniel Reis (lead author), Michael Namekata, Erik Wing and Carina Fowler (now of Duke University), said these symptoms of “winter-onset depression” could prompt people to consume more sweets.

“One common characteristic of winter-onset depression is craving sugar,” he said.

“So, we’ve got up to 30% of the population suffering from at least some symptoms of winter-onset depression, causing them to crave carbs – and now they’re constantly confronted with holiday sweets.”

Ilardi said avoidance of added dietary sugar might be especially challenging because sugar offers an initial mood boost, leading some with depressive illness to seek its temporary emotional lift.

“When we consume sweets, they act like a drug,” said the KU researcher, who also is author of “The Depression Cure” (First De Capo Press, 2009).

“They have an immediate mood-elevating effect, but in high doses they can also have a paradoxical, pernicious longer-term consequence of making mood worse, reducing well-being, elevating inflammation and causing weight gain.”

The investigators reached their conclusions by analyzing a wide range of research on the physiological and psychological effects of consuming added sugar, including the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study, the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, a study of Spanish university graduates, and studies of Australian and Chinese soda-drinkers.

Ilardi cautioned it might be appropriate to view added sugar, at high enough levels, as physically and psychologically harmful, akin to drinking a little too much liquor.

“We have pretty good evidence that one alcoholic drink a day is safe, and it might have beneficial effect for some people,” he said.

“Alcohol is basically pure calories, pure energy, non-nutritive and super toxic at high doses.

Sugars are very similar. We’re learning when it comes to depression, people who optimize their diet should provide all the nutrients the brain needs and mostly avoid these potential toxins.”

The researchers found inflammation is the most important physiological effect of dietary sugar related to mental health and depressive disorder.

“A large subset of people with depression have high levels of systemic inflammation,” said Ilardi.

“When we think about inflammatory disease we think about things like diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis – diseases with a high level of systemic inflammation.

We don’t normally think about depression being in that category, but it turns out that it really is – not for everyone who’s depressed, but for about half.

We also know that inflammatory hormones can directly push the brain into a state of severe depression. So, an inflamed brain is typically a depressed brain.

And added sugars have a pro-inflammatory effect on the body and brain.”

Ilardi said avoidance of added dietary sugar might be especially challenging because sugar offers an initial mood boost, leading some with depressive illness to seek its temporary emotional lift.

Ilardi and his collaborators also identify sugar’s impact on the microbiome as a potential contributor to depression.

“Our bodies host over 10 trillion microbes and many of them know how to hack into the brain,” Ilardi said.

“The symbiotic microbial species, the beneficial microbes, basically hack the brain to enhance our well-being.

They want us to thrive so they can thrive. But there are also some opportunistic species that can be thought of as more purely parasitic – they don’t have our best interest in mind at all. Many of those parasitic microbes thrive on added sugars, and they can produce chemicals that push the brain in a state of anxiety and stress and depression. They’re also highly inflammatory.”

Ilardi recommended a minimally processed diet rich in plant-based foods and Omega-3 fatty acids for optimal psychological benefit. As for sugar, the KU researcher recommended caution – not just during the holidays, but year-round.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to predicting exactly how any person’s body will react to any given food at any given dose,” Ilardi stated.

“As a conservative guideline, based on our current state of knowledge, there could be some risk associated with high-dose sugar intake – probably anything above the American Heart Association guideline, which is 25 grams of added sugars per day.”

Recent meta-analyses have confirmed that severe mental illnesses (SMI), including major depressive disorder (MDD), bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, are associated with increased levels of both peripheral inflammatory markers (1) and systemic inflammation (2). Additionally, heightened inflammation could present a novel treatment target for MDD, given that the anti-depressant efficacy of various pharmacological and lifestyle interventions appears to be associated with reductions in inflammation (34).

In schizophrenia, the evidence for antipsychotics altering inflammatory markers is mixed (15), although there is some preliminary evidence to indicate that various adjunctive interventions may confer beneficial effects through reducing inflammatory status (67).

Calorie-dense diets that are high in saturated fats and simple carbohydrates appear to increase peripheral inflammatory markers, whereas diets high in fiber and vegetables reduce inflammation (812). Systematic reviews of dietary patterns in people with SMI have shown elevated intakes of sugar-sweetened soft drinks, refined grains, and processed meat are common in this population (1314).

However, the degree to which these dietary patterns heighten inflammation in SMI, and the potential impact on physical and mental health outcomes, is relatively unexplored. This comprehensive review brings together the evidence from cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental studies on this topic to:

  1. Examine the extent to which inflammatory potential of the diet (hereafter referred to as “dietary inflammation”) is elevated in SMI populations;
  2. Explore the directionality of the links between dietary inflammation and symptoms of SMI;
  3. Discuss the existing evidence for the use of nutritional interventions for improving health outcomes in SMI and how these effects may act through inflammatory pathways.

Food Intake and Dietary Inflammation in People with Severe Mental Illnesses

A recent large-scale study of the UK Biobank (15) compared the macro- and micro-nutrient intake of individuals with diagnosed MDD (n = 14,619), bipolar disorder (n = 952), and schizophrenia (n = 262) to healthy controls (n = 54,010), showing that people with SMI consumed significantly more carbohydrate, sugar, fat, and saturated fat than healthy controls (all p < 0.001), even when controlling for age, gender, education, BMI, social deprivation, and ethnicity.

The study also examined the inflammatory potential of food intakes of individuals with SMI compared with the general population using the “Dietary Inflammatory Index” (DII®). The DII is a literature-derived, population-based measure, which provides an estimate of the inflammatory potential of an individual’s diet from up to 45 individual food parameters (16). DII scores have been validated against various blood markers of inflammatory status across a number of different populations (1721).

The DII scores in SMI samples in the UK Biobank are displayed in Figure 1 [derived from Firth et al. (15)], adjusted for age, gender, and total energy intake. These data show highly elevated dietary inflammation in individuals with schizophrenia, along with smaller, but significantly increased, levels of dietary inflammation in individuals with MDD (all p < 0.01). Although dietary inflammation in the bipolar disorder group was similarly larger than healthy controls (p = 0.03), this difference was reduced to a marginally non-significant trend after adjusting for BMI and socioeconomic status (p = 0.07).

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Figure 1
Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII) scores from 53,270 healthy controls, compared to major depressive disorder (MDD) (n = 14,422), bipolar disorders (BPD, n = 933), and schizophrenia (SZ, n = 254). Midpoint shows adjusted means. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals. *Statistically significant difference compared to healthy controls. Data derived from Firth et al. (15).

It is interesting to note that despite the vast number of studies examining elevated levels of peripheral inflammation observed across all classes of SMI (1), none have accurately controlled for the potential confounding factor of diet. Furthermore, a priority for future research is to validate the accuracy of dietary reporting in SMI. Interestingly, previous research comparing other lifestyle factors (i.e., physical activity) using objective against self-report measures in SMI have shown that people with schizophrenia significantly overestimate health behaviors compared with the general population (22). Therefore, replication of these findings, using validated measures in SMI alongside blood markers of inflammation, is required to establish how diet may relate to inflammation in SMI.

Along with poor mental health, people with SMI experience drastic inequalities in physical health, including elevated rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiometabolic disorders, ultimately contributing to a reduced life expectancy of around 20 years (23).

Given the clear causal links between dietary inflammation and these health outcomes established in the general population (1012), and the established benefits of dietary interventions for physical health in SMI (24), it is reasonable to explore dietary inflammation as one risk factor driving some of the physical health inequalities observed in this population. Indeed, the highest levels of dietary inflammation are observed in schizophrenia: a group that also experiences significantly worse physical health outcomes than other classes of SMI (2526).

Poor dietary quality associated with schizophrenia may even be driven by side effects of antipsychotic medications, which may increase appetite through interfering with the “hunger hormone,” ghrelin (27). Clearly, there is an urgent need for future research to determine the mechanisms through which poor diet may be driving adverse health outcomes in people with SMI. This line of investigation will provide novel insights into the etiology of the physical health inequalities observed in this population and has the potential to inform clinical care.

A key limitation of the current literature is a lack of large-scale data on dietary patterns among young people with SMI, thus making it difficult to determine whether poor diet precedes the onset of mental illness, or vice versa. In the general population, data suggest that younger people tend to have worse diets than older adults (28). This also may apply to SMI populations, as nutritional deficits in psychosis are evident even prior to antipsychotic treatment (29). Thus, in the following section, we review the prospective studies examining links between high levels of dietary inflammation and the subsequent onset of mental illness.

Prospective Associations Between Dietary Inflammation and Psychiatric Symptoms

Poor nutrition has been implicated in the onset and persistence of psychiatric disorders (30). In general, cohort studies have shown that dietary patterns, such as a Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and legumes, may be protective against mental health disorders (3138). By contrast, increased risk of mental disorders has been observed with dietary patterns, such as the Western diet, characterized by high intake of saturated fat and refined carbohydrates (333941).

Inflammation presents one feasible mechanism through which diet may affect the risk of mental disorders. This is supported by multiple cohort studies showing that higher DII scores are associated with increased risk of depression (4249).

Combining all longitudinal data on this topic (including 77,420 participants from seven different studies), a recent meta-analysis confirmed that higher levels of dietary inflammation were associated with 31% increased risk of depression over the 5- to 13-year follow-up period (50). This meta-analysis also found that pro-inflammatory diets were more strongly associated with depression among females than males (50), although significant relationships were observed for both sexes.

Despite these positive findings on links between depression and dietary inflammation calculated from self-report measures, future research must establish if these relationships are mediated by biological markers of inflammatory status.

Although a number of studies have found joint relationships between dietary inflammation, inflammatory markers, and depressive symptoms (5153), those findings are inconsistent with other results showing that dietary patterns associated with heightened inflammatory markers do not consistently predict depression scores (54).

Currently, there is an urgent need for longitudinal studies to assess how dietary inflammation is related to the onset of other classes of SMI, because there is currently no strong evidence linking dietary inflammation with risk of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. As the effects of dietary inflammation on mental health are also observed in adolescence (51), when the majority of SMIs first arise (55), the potential impact that this may have on risk of bipolar and psychotic disorders is worthy of further examination.

Along with clinical symptoms, people with SMI (and particularly schizophrenia) also display a range of cognitive deficits (5658), which impede daily functioning (5960), and are not treated by psychotropic medications (6162).

There is an emerging literature suggesting that elevated peripheral inflammatory markers are associated with deficits in cognitive function among patients with psychiatric disorders (163).

Though the specific mechanisms underlying this association remain unclear, chronic and acute inflammation is thought to have a number of detrimental effects on brain structure and function, which, in turn, appear to adversely affect cognitive performance (6466).

Poor diet and obesity also have a well-established link with cognitive dysfunction (6768). There is mounting evidence that these associations may be mediated by inflammatory processes (69), suggesting that diet has the potential to act as a modifiable risk factor for cognitive dysfunction both in clinical and non-clinical populations.

Much of the work investigating the association between diet, inflammation, and cognition has come from a series of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies in older adults, which indicate that diets with high inflammatory potential may be associated with accelerated cognitive decline and reduced brain volume (7072).

Considering the high levels of dietary inflammation and cognitive deficits observed in SMI, along with indicated relationships between cognitive functioning and diet in other populations, this area presents a promising avenue for future research (73).

Conclusions and Future Research

The current evidence from human studies examining the role of dietary inflammation in SMI are shown in Figure 2. The cross-sectional literature provides consistent evidence that individuals with SMI consume more pro-inflammatory foods than the general population, and fewer anti-inflammatory nutrients—which may contribute toward the heightened levels of inflammatory markers observed in SMI.

In the few studies that have compared different classes of SMI, the highest dietary risks are observed among people with schizophrenia (who also have the most severe disparities in physical health, compared with other mental disorders). However, the bulk of both the observational and experimental studies examining the links between dietary inflammation and mental health have been conducted in depression (see Figure 2A)—with a relative dearth of evidence in other disorders.

Therefore, there is now a need for researchers and clinicians to build upon the existing evidence in MDD and give further attention to the impact of dietary inflammation in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and explore the potential benefits of dietary modification for these populations.

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Figure 2
Key Findings and Future Questions: A map of the evidence for the role of dietary inflammation in severe mental illnesses (SMI), with regard to (A) different conditions, and (B) different aspects of the interaction between dietary inflammation, inflammatory markers, and psychiatric disorders.

The longitudinal studies now provide population-scale data showing that high levels of dietary inflammation are associated with increased the likelihood of developing depression over time. However, there is little evidence to suggest that this also applies to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Alongside this, a key remaining question in this field (which can only be addressed by experimental studies), is: “Can reducing dietary inflammation make a difference?” or, more specifically, “Is it possible that dietary modification can reduce inflammation and thus improve symptoms in people with SMI?”

Currently, there is no experimental evidence to show that a specific “anti-inflammatory” diet influences psychiatric symptoms of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Furthermore, whereas RCTs and meta-analyses have recently shown that dietary improvement reduces symptoms of depression (in both clinical and non-clinical populations), the extent to which this is due to anti-inflammatory effects of dietary interventions has not been assessed.

Nonetheless, some evidence from nutraceutical trials suggests that certain anti-inflammatory nutrients may provide adjunctive treatments for subgroups of individuals with mental health conditions with particularly elevated levels of inflammation.

With regard to whole-diet interventions, it is interesting to consider the prevalent finding that the weight loss, fat reduction, or Mediterranean diets trialed so far all appear to confer similar beneficial effects on depressive symptoms.

Whereas this may indicate a lack of specificity, it should be acknowledged that each of these interventions, although differing in stated aims, generally have some key factors in common. Specifically, all of these interventions generally involve decreasing the amount of refined, processed calorie-dense foods, while increasing intake of nutrient-dense natural-occurring fiber and vegetables.

Therefore, the general equivalence across difference types of diets could ultimately produce an encouraging message, suggesting that highly specific or specialized diets are perhaps unnecessary for the average individuals, as adhering to very simple and universally accepted dietary advice appears to be equally beneficial for psychological well-being—and sufficient for avoiding the potentially deleterious effects on mental health of a “junk food” diet.

To provide greater insight on this, future research should attempt to elucidate the specific mechanisms through which the dietary impacts upon inflammation to influence mental health. For instance, hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinemia after a meal of refined starches and sugars may promote inflammation by increasing production of free radicals and pro inflammatory cytokines (8586), whereas high levels of saturated fat intake decrease production of short chain fatty acids such as butyrate, which have anti-inflammatory properties (87).

Alongside these nutritional factors, obesity and excess adipose tissue themselves directly heighten inflammation—suggesting that attenuating these adverse states of health through calorie restriction and low-fat diets could reduce inflammatory status and thus improve psychological well-being (7488).

Along with reducing dietary patterns with inflammatory potential, the adequate intake of beneficial nutrients is another mechanism through which “healthy diets” improve inflammatory profiles and support mental health. For example, various vitamins and minerals have been shown to modulate the “kyrenuine pathway” (89), which regulates the immune system, particularly with regard neurotrophic factor production, NMDA receptor signaling, and glutamatergic neurotransmission—all of which are implicated in inflammatory hypotheses of SMI (90).

A further emerging pathway through which inflammatory potential of the diet may induce depressive symptoms is by interacting with the gut–brain axis and affecting the gut microbiome (91). However, the role of individual nutrients on modifying the microbiome is still poorly understood, as are the exact mechanisms by which the gut microbiome itself affects mental health (92).

Further investment in human trials is now required to establish the feasibility and efficacy of dietary improvement as an intervention for improving physical and mental health across different classes of SMI. Additionally, future trials should aim to measure peripheral and central inflammation before and after dietary interventions in SMI.

In this way, researchers could apply subgroup and mediation analyses to examine how the potential benefits of nutrition interventions are related to changes in inflammatory status. Ultimately, this line of investigation could shed new light on the interface between physical and mental health in people with SMI, along with presenting novel interventions and adjunctive treatments for improving psychological well-being and tackling the poor cardiometabolic health observed in this underserved population.

University of Kansas
Media Contacts:
Brendan M. Lynch – University of Kansas
Image Source:
The image is adapted from the University of Kansas news release.

Original Research: Open access
“The depressogenic potential of added dietary sugars”. Stephen Ilardi et al.
Medical Hypotheses doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2019.109421.


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