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The surprising emotional benefits of banning sugar

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Sugar and bacteria are intricately linked, and both affect your serotonin levels.

At the very beginning of my pregnancy with my last baby, I attempted a Whole 30 for the first time. If you’re unfamiliar with it, a Whole 30 is a 30-day challenge to eat purely Paleo — no grains, no sugar, no dairy, no processed foods whatsoever for a whole month.

It was really hard, but also really surprising. I was expecting weight loss, and I did lose a little weight. But what I wasn’t expecting was the remarkable emotional stability I experienced, much like what Quench writer Linda Niazi experienced when she cut sugar for 30 days.

I was a mess — crying one minute, and laughing the next. When I cut sugar, I was much more stable, however anytime I’d allow myself a treat or “cheat day,” the roller coaster would start up again. On days when I had sugar, I felt more anxious, I was more likely to lose my temper, and I had a difficult time managing my emotions. For the sake of my family and my sanity, I went much longer without “cheats.” Moreover, your gut produces most of your body’s serotonin, a mood stabilizer, so when there is an imbalance in the gut, such as too much bad bacteria, the result is more mood swings and anxiety.

I had wanted to try it mostly just to see if I could, but also to stave off some of the inevitable pregnancy weight gain. I often have a tendency to overdo the sugar during pregnancy just a little, which makes me gain unhealthy amounts of weight.

But I had never considered my erratic mood swings, high anxiety, and post-partum depression to be related to my diet. After all, if mood disorders could be treated by diet, wouldn’t someone have told me about that? Wouldn’t that be a front-line treatment instead of SSRIs?

And yet, it makes sense. When my kids eat too much sugar I know exactly what to expect — manic energy followed by a meltdown. The effects of sugar on kids’ moods are glaringly obvious. Moreover, I know from experience that eating an entire pan of brownies instead of a salad provides momentary pleasure followed by misery (and heartburn). It’s called stress eating because we do it when we’re stressed, but excess sugar consumption tends to create an endless cycle. We eat it when we feel stressed or sad, but the sugar makes us feel even more stressed and sadder, so we eat more of it. It’s like the bacteria that feed on sugar have hacked our emotional response system to get us to feed them even more sugar.

That alone makes me want to do another 30-day sugar cleanse, because I don’t like the idea of bad gut bacteria winning. But remembering the clarity and calm of those 30 sugar-free days is a more powerful motivator. After a lifetime of feeling at the mercy of my own emotions, I know that sugar is not worth paying that price. No matter how delicious.

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