Christmas Candy Rollercoaster: The Scientific Scoop On Sugar

It was two-thirty in the afternoon and Dana’s positive attitude was wearing thin. She needed at least another three hours of mental focus for her workday, so she poured a cup of coffee into her favorite mug and grabbed a gingerbread cookie off the nearby holiday tray. The caffeine would hopefully kick in soon, and she anticipated the immediate sugar-rush mood lift. After an hour of working, she laid her head on the desk; so tired.

“Get with it!” she reprimanded herself and grabbed a candy cane from the bag of Christmas goodies on her desk. The sticky sweetness brought a rush of pleasure that released dopamine into her brain. She smiled and sighed and went back to her keyboard with renewed vigor. And yet within half an hour she felt more exhausted than before and could hardly keep from nodding off. A handful of M&Ms at 4:15 delivered another burst of dopamine to her system, and she pressed on until just before 5pm. By then she was irritable, unfocused, and fed up with work. She pulled a Coke from the office fridge and gulped half the can; within seconds she enjoyed the familiar rush and sat back down to finish her project for the day. At 5:30pm she closed her computer with a frustrated sigh and wearily headed for the door. Facing the dinner, homework, and bedtime chaos with her kids felt like an endless chore. Why was she so tired and cranky every evening?

A meta-analysis from Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews attempted to answer Dana’s all-too-familiar question. Researchers analyzed 31 studies including 1259 participants to evaluate the conundrum of carbohydrate consumption on mood and energy: sugar rush or sugar crash?

After factoring carbohydrate and mood connections based on time-course and other moderating variables (along the  lines of taste, comfort, dopamine), scientists discovered zero evidence of positive effect. In other words – despite that delightful sugary taste, comfort, and dopamine rush – carbohydrate consumption does not help improve mood, focus, or energy.

The authors offered three specific highlights from their research findings:

As many of us do, Dana had fallen into the fatigue-producing downward spiral of seeking an energy boost from carbohydrate consumption. Armed with the truthful scoop about sugar she could now make better choices for facing that typical afternoon slump. Things like taking a power nap, sipping on grapefruit-infused sparkling water, running a diffuser with peppermint essential oil, or doing a burst of physical activity every hour are all effective mood and focus-boosting options. Research is debunking the myth of the sugar-rush, and wiser mood-enhancing alternatives will lead to greater productivity, health, and happiness. Now that’s a scoop of truth we can all use!

By Terissa Michele Miller, MS Psy

Check out the original research:

This article was originally published in Modern Brain Journal.

About the author:
Teri Miller is a mom of nine and child development researcher with a Masters of Science in Psychology. She is a Research Associate at Gibson Institute of Cognitive Research, co-host of the podcast Brainy Momsand the Managing Editor at Modern Brain Journal.