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Ask JJ: Can Sugary Drinks Lower Stress?

04/25/2015 10:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2015

Dear JJ: A recent study found sugar-sweetened drinks could lower stress levels, though you argue sugar raises stress. Did I misread this study or does it somehow validate having an occasional soft drink?

A just-published study in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism concluded that sugary sodas could potentially lower your brain's stress response.

In this study, 19 females drank either a sugar-sweetened or aspartame-sweetened drink with three meals over 12 days. Before and after the study, participants took a math test and then underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) screenings to evaluate their stress response.

Turns out the women who drank sugar-sweetened drinks had lower post-test levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared with aspartame drinkers.

You've heard of comfort eating to assuage stress, but this is the first study I've uncovered that suggested comfort drinking (non-alcoholic, that is!) could lower stress levels.

The Downside of Sugary Drinks

Recent studies haven't been kind to sugar. Studies connect sugary-drink consumption with obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. That's especially troubling considering about half of Americans drink sugary drinks on any given day.

"You already know that eating too much sugar causes your teeth to rot and can lead to diabetes and obesity. But could it also trigger high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease and possibly even cancer?" asks Elizabeth Svoboda.

Many people underestimate the amount of sugar in fruit juices and other sugary drinks. Your body doesn't care whether it comes from a high-sugar impact flavored water or a cupcake;
that sugar breaks down into the monosaccharides (simple sugars) fructose and glucose. Especially with soft drinks, that sugar comes as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

According to Dr. Mark Hyman, "your brain doesn't get the message to stop eating HFCS, making it easy to overeat and create hormonal and metabolic havoc. Even though it doesn't raise insulin, studies show fructose contributes to insulin resistance leading to weight gain, elevated triglycerides, Type 2 diabetes, and even cancer."

At least in animal studies, fructose also increases brain oxidative stress and inflammation. Another study showed fructose could stress out your liver and contribute to fatty liver.

The glucose in HFCS, on the other hand, raises your blood sugar. Insulin pulls that blood sugar down, but this hormone often over-compensates and pulls it down too low. As you might imagine, this massive spike and crash creates all sorts of metabolic havoc.

"Surprisingly, one of the biggest causes behind stress is your blood sugar," writes Dr. Alan Christianson. "When we experience regular stress, our adrenal glands make more of a stress hormone called cortisol. Along with managing stress, this hormone also manages your blood sugar. Whenever your blood sugar level changes too fast, your adrenal glands release cortisol to pull it back up again. Unstable blood sugar can make you feel the same as you would feel when an event makes you angry, frustrated or frightened."

Sugar Surges and Hormonal Imbalances

If sugar creates metabolic and hormonal stress, how might a sugary drink lower your stress hormone cortisol? Perhaps it doesn't, or affects cortisol indirectly.

"When we're stressed out, we have a high level of a hormone called cortisol, and we crave sugar because if we eat some sugar, we will actually get another hormone called serotonin, which is calming and relaxing," writes Rebecca Scritchfield. "It's just our body's way of taking a chill pill."

In other words, rather than directly lower stress hormones, perhaps sugar temporarily drives up feel-good hormones like serotonin that blunt cortisol's effect.

Unfortunately, that short-lived surge often creates long-term detrimental consequences, and whatever temporary relief a sugary drink offered these participants probably came at a huge metabolic and hormonal cost.

Next time you feel frazzled, skip the high-sugar impact drink and opt for something that reduces stress but also benefits your health.

Studies show getting a massage, practicing meditation or yoga, or even watching a funny movie can all remove stress without that sugary drink's detrimental long-term consequences.

If you've got to have something liquid, meet your bestie at Starbucks for a calming green tea. Just remember that, according to Hyman, too much caffeine can jack up your stress hormones when you want them to taper.

What one strategy do you frequently employ to reduce stress? Share yours below. And keep those great questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.