Halloween this year poses unique risks. In 2020, a night of trick-or-treating entails social distancing and handling children who’ve been cooped up at home for months. What’s more, Halloween is a sugar free-for-all, and the short- and long-term risks of sugar overload are present every year. Though the links between sugar consumption and inflammation, diabetes, and obesity are well-known, one repercussion might be more surprising: its detrimental effects on mental health.
This might seem counterintuitive, given the term “sugar rush” colloquially refers to feeling energized and elated after consuming something sugary. When sugar levels rise in the blood, this kicks off an adrenaline surge, which, yes, releases glucose to give us extra energy. This is also known as a fight-or-flight response, and “can kick up anxiety, depression and, in particular, mess up our sleep/wake cycle,” says Dr. Teralyn Sell, a psychotherapist and brain health expert. (Related: 21 Best Healthy Cooking Hacks of All Time.)
Sugar also signals neurotransmitters in our brains to generate dopamine, and facilitates the transport of an amino acid called tryptophan, which creates serotonin. This may feel good in the short-term, but it can also cause an addictive dependency in the long run.
“In adults or in children, extensive use of sugar can precipitate mental health problems,” says Dr. Sell. “Adults might be anxious, fatigued, and irritable while children might be hyperactive, lack focus and concentration, and have a tantrum.” A Norwegian survey found that children who consumed over four servings of sugary beverages a day were more likely to report mental distress, while a U.S. study found that abnormally elevated blood sugar levels could slow brain development in children between ages 4 and 9.
Thankfully, there are ways to minimize the effect of sugar on the brain and the body. “Make sure your kids eat higher protein snacks before and after candy,” Dr. Sell suggests. “This will help stabilize blood sugar and help to avoid mood issues.”
In general, avoid using sugar as a reward mechanism, Dr. Sell says. And to prevent the Halloween haul from affecting your sleep cycle, avoid snacking on candy before bed. “Instead, opt for a small protein snack,” Dr. Sell advises. There are plenty to choose from, so it won’t be hard to make sure that sugary treats aren’t the scariest thing about your Halloween this year.
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