Sugar and Depression: the Steve McCrosskey update

by Martin

in A Depression Blog

Sugar and Depression - Bus Stop Tranquil Vale

It’s now just over 4 weeks since I started this sugar and depression experiment.

To recap, in a bid to regulate my moods I decided to give up processed sugar.

With that, I therefore gave up all the sweets, cakes, desserts, chocolate and lip-smacking loveliness that I had hitherto relied on to make me feel good when life was doing the opposite.

Since I emerged from a major depressive episode, I (and more particularly my wife) had noticed that my moods had tended to yo-yo quite alarmingly. There were no periods of especially elevated mood, but there were mood swings from okay to low and, especially, from okay to irritated and angry.

Without going over the whole back-story in this post, it is fair to say that in the last year there have been a number of external stressors that would have no doubt played a part in this. But, once I’d done some research, it also seemed quite likely that my diet, especially my sugar intake, was having an impact on my moods too.

So, I quit sugar and went cold turkey.

After a shaky start, I haven’t found it too hard. Cravings still occur, but it is not too hard to resist.

I haven’t given up all sugar of course. There is plenty of sugar in fruit and I’ve started eating a lot of fruit. But, as I understand it, the naturally occurring sugars in fruit have less impact on mood that processed sugars.

So is there a relationship between sugar and depression or sugar and mood?

After a month of this, you would think I’d have some idea, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. And here’s why.

These are some of the things that have been going on in my life since I gave up sugar:

  • We sold our house
  • We had to look for another house to live in, in a very tight market
  • We packed up our old house
  • I had to work flat out for about 4 days straight to make the new place habitable
  • I’ve been taking some supposedly mood enhancing vitamins and supplements
  • I developed quite bad insomnia
  • I started learning meditation
  • I’ve been fretting about a big career move that should mean more job satisfaction but also less money and security
  • We moved house
  • We’ve been unpacking and getting things straight in the new place, for days.

If you had to devise a list of things with the greatest potential to impact mood, whether positively (meditation, supplements) or negatively (pretty much everything else), I reckon this would be a good starting point. So, I think it is fair to say that it is nigh on impossible, in the context of all these factors, to assess the effect that giving up sugar has had.

Which brings me to the headline of this piece, because, as Steve McCrosskey (the Lloyd Bridges character) in Airplane might have said, ‘looks like I picked the wrong week to give up sugar‘.

So, what have I learned?

Despite the failure of this experiment’s primary purpose, some very interesting facts have emerged.

Here is my latest Optimism mood chart.

Sugar and depression Optimism Mood Chart

Sugar and depression Optimism mood chart week 4

The elements to pay attention to in the chart are these:

  • the red line in the upper chart represents my mood
  • the grey line in the upper chart represents how well I coped that day
  • the grey block in the upper chart represent exercise taken
  • the orange block in the lower chart represent amount of sleep
  • the blue line in the lower chart represents quality of sleep
  • the gold stars below the lower chart indicate that I took my vitamins/supplements.

Obviously, I don’t claim that any scientific rigour is attached to this, but it is certainly worthwhile reviewing mood over an extended period, because some definite patterns are apparent.

First, it seems quite clear that my mood is better when I have more sleep.

Second, and quite surprisingly, there seems to be something of an inverse relationship between my mood and the amount of exercise taken. I doubt very much that there is any distinct causal relationship here (i.e. more exercise means lower mood), because there is plenty of scientific evidence to the contrary.

What I suspect is happening is that exercise is worsening mood when it is taken in the context of a background of poor sleep. In other words because I was already tired, the primary effect of the exercise was to make me more tired (and thus irritable etcetera).

Third, it is interesting that there are some quite significant dips in mood on several of the days when I forgot to take my vitamins and supplements. This is worthy of further investigation in itself and makes me wonder whether, as with medication for depression, there is a placebo effect at work.

Finally, you’ll see that my mood seems more stable towards the end of the month.

This could be related to the settling of sugar withdrawal but it also coincides with the period in which I have started meditating. More (sugar-less) food for thought and potentially another thoroughly unscientific experiment in the offing, I think.

I’ll draw this ‘experiment’ to a close with this post. Although I do intend to write a piece on the physiology relating to sugar intake.

I’d love to hear whether anybody else has cut out sugar or other foods and noticed a substantial effect on mood. Please comment below.


Mood and carbohydrate cravings. Christensen L, Pettijohn L. Department of Psychology, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL 36688, USA.

Sugar Shock!: How Sweets and Simple Carbs Can Derail Your Life– and How YouCan Get Back on Track by Connie Bennett.

Image: Bus Stop, Tranquil Vale, screenprint, edition of 22, 50cm x 21cm, by Martin Grover

Go to Part 1 of the Sugar and Depression experiment
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About the Author

Father, husband, writer and website publisher, discontented in his day-job, he writes here about depression - his own and in general. You can follow Too Depressed on Twitter. Please share the content on this site with all your friends, followers and contacts using the buttons above.

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Last revised on December 10, 2012

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg November 22, 2011 at 2:02 pm

I quit sugar for along time and found it to be helpful for my moods, I am bi-polar. But just love them too much, I have found that other things can play a big role too, like vitamins…even something as simple as water. Someday s I feel anxious and aggravated and just hydrating will make an impact almost immediately. Exercise, writing..I also started a blog and write on hubpages about depression too keeps me level.

Good Luck! Enjoyed the article!


Martin November 22, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Hi Greg
Thanks for your comment.
Interesting that you pinpont other things that affect your situation. One of the most frustrating aspects of depression for me is that it is almost impossible to pinpoint what the operative causes are and therefore what to target. Seems like you have to try everything and see what works for you.

Even then, things seem to shift over time.


Helga December 13, 2011 at 8:36 pm

I’m not sure if this is an old post, but was what i needed to read today. I’ve been on a low fat raw vegan diet for a while (yr +) and exclude all processed sugar. experiencing what life is again is awesome, although not everyday is what I want it to be yet. Over the past 3 or so weeks I have felt like i’m sinking back into my ‘hole’ and realise now that i have included processed sugar (and higher fat) back into my diet [stressful time as well but thats no excuse...] – this was a GREAT reminder – food and mood – completely related imo. I needed an extra bit of motivation today to let go of my black dog and this just reminded me of where i’ve been slipping up and put things into perspective. Hoping to feel somewhat better soon (especially before the holiday!)


Martin December 14, 2011 at 7:15 am

Hi Helga
Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you got something from this post. I think drawing on the stories of others to see that you’re not alone is a quite an important aspect of coping with depression. In many ways that’s what this website is all about.

It certainly can’t do you any harm to stay off the sugars and processed foods and is almost certainly doing you good – to your body and, hopefully, your mind.

Keep at it and, if you allow yourself the odd indulgence over the holiday period just try to enjoy – in the moment – and don’t beat yourself up about it after.

It sounds to me like you’ve done a heroic job if you’ve been on a low fat raw vegan diet for over a year.

Well done and please stop by again. Your input is very welcome.
Martin recently posted..Lack of sleep and depression: which is the cause and which the effect?My Profile


Kate Harris January 4, 2013 at 11:24 am

Hi Martin, I have gone through a whole world of change and it all began when I quit sugar. Really though, quitting sugar was just stepping stone to changing my life. I had been having mood swings and felt anxious and was generally very “blah” in my life.

Quitting sugar (completely for two whole weeks – no fruit allowed) reset my taste buds and gave me some time to distance myself from sugar to set up better eating habits. I went to a whole food diet and removed processed foods from my diet; I began to exercise lightly (jogging and home workouts since money was tight); I began writing a journal and also to look at what I wanted in my life. Ultimately I want to live a long healthy life.

It took some time to see the big changes in my weight but my mood was brightened in about a month or so.

Now my life feels more normal than before. I focus on good food and healthy exercise to help my moods. Even when I am having a BAD day and I all I want to do is sleep, I go outside and walk 5 blocks. I just do it and force myself. I always feel better for it. And I NEVER make myself feel bad if I indulge in my “no-no” list. Life is for living, and everyone is different. You have to find what works for you and I hope you find it. I wish you all the best!!!!!!
Kate Harris recently posted..Calculate Your Daily Sugar Intake: An ExampleMy Profile


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