An Alarming Reason to Quit Sugary Drinks

You may want to think twice before reaching for that soda.

glass-of-sugar
Photo by Angelika Schwarz/Getty Images

If you suffer from a serious sweet tooth, you're not alone. Americans eat a lot of sugar, and you're probably drinking way too much of it, too. With as much as 44 grams of sugar in just one 16-ounce bottle of soda and 23 grams of sugar per cup of orange juice, there's a good chance that soda, juice, and other sugary drinks comprise a major part of your sugar intake.

It's not surprising that sugary drinks are bad for you. They can lead to higher obesity rates, according to one paper published in the Journal of Obesity. And consuming too much sugar can contribute to a long list of health problems, including liver disease, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Now, scientists have discovered that sugary drinks could also suppress your body's stress response.

For the study, published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers instructed one group of women to drink beverages sweetened with sugar, and the others to drink aspartame-sweetened alternatives—think diet soda and other low-sugar drinks—at breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 12 days. Then, the participants took a math test. Before the study and after the test, researchers gave the participants functional MRI screenings and measured their cortisol (the stress hormone) levels to see how their bodies responded to the stress of the math test.

The results showed that the women who drank the aspartame-sweetened beverages had higher cortisol levels than those who drank the regular sugar-sweetened ones. The functional MRIs also showed the participants' hippocampus, the part of the brain that is typically is less active when the body is under stress, were less active in those who consumed the aspartame-sweetened drinks, suggesting that they were experi more stress than those who had consumed the sugary drinks. "This is the first evidence that high sugar, but not aspartame, consumption may relieve stress in humans," Dr. Kevin D. Laugero, one of the study's authors, said in a statement. "The concern is psychological or emotional stress could trigger the habitual over-consumption of sugar and amplify sugar's detrimental health effects, including obesity."​

In other words, stress could fuel a sugar addiction. And while dampening anxiety might sound like a good thing, suppressing how your body reacts to stress with sugar is very different from relieving it through meditation or exercise. "The results suggest differences in dietary habits may explain why some people under-react to stressful situations and others overreact," Laugero said in a statement. "Although it may be tempting to suppress feelings of stress, a normal reaction to stress is important to good health. Research has linked over- and under-reactivity in neural and endocrine stress systems to poor mental and physical health."​

The easiest fix? Wean yourself off sugary drinks and opt for healthier choices, like turmeric teacoffee (hold the cream and sugar!), and green tea. Plus, find other ways to cope with stress and anxiety: Focus on breathing exercises, smiling more, and getting enough sleep.