The Link Between Stress And Sugar Consumption

  • Dana Visnitchi MSci, Neuroscience with Psychology, University of Aberdeen, Scotland
  • Regina Lopes Senior Nursing Assistant, Health and Social Care, The Open University

Have you ever felt stressed and begun craving and consuming sugary foods like chocolate or ice cream? That is because sweets and  treats high in caloriesprovide you with temporary relief. However, in the long term, this overconsumption of sugar can be  detrimental to your health. 

The simplified reasons why you need sugar in a stressful situation are because it provides your brain with energy to keep working, and it also activates the pleasure centre in your brain, making you feel better and happier for a short period.

This article aims to dive deeply into the relationship between stress and sugar consumption, explain the optimal levels of sugar that you should consume and provide tips for a healthier and less stressful lifestyle.

How the brain responds to stress

When you are experiencing stress, your body is preparing to deal with a challenging situation. Here is how your brain responds to this type of situation:1

  • The “fear centre” in your brain, also known as the amygdala, activates your hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a complex structure composed of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal cortex or glands. 
  • The HPA, also considered the central stress response system, activates the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Cortisol then provokes different physiological changes, which include increasing glucose (sugar) levels in your blood so your brain can use it as fuel, speeding your heart rate and sending more blood to your limbs so you can stay alert in a stressful or dangerous situation.  

Stress eating and sugar intake

One reason you might crave sugar when you are stressed is because, in this condition, your brain requires more energy to function properly. Glucose, a type of sugar, is the main source of energy for your brain.2 So under stressful conditions, your brain requires more of this fuel. Consequently, your body craves sugar, which will increase your blood glucose levels, hence, meeting the brain’s elevated energy needs.3

However, eating sugary foods as a stress relief goes beyond being a source of energy. Eating sugar, especially overconsuming it, can stimulate the reward pathway in your brain, which triggers the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. These chemical messengers produce a reward for you in the form of pleasurable and enjoyable feelings and experiences. This will provide you with a temporary relief of your stress. 3 4  Thus, experiencing relief and pleasant feelings might serve as a motivational factor for you to keep consuming sugar-rich snacks, which could result in other health issues. 

Health implications of excessive sugar consumption and stress

There are several negative outcomes for your health caused by the overconsumption of sugar and stress:

  • Your blood glucose levels will drastically decrease during stressful situations. Consequently, your mood and energy will be affected, you might feel unsettled, and you may also notice changes in appetite. This could worsen your stress even more and perpetuate the vicious cycle of stress and excessive sugar intake.
  • If you consume sugar, your body releases insulin to keep your blood glucose at normal levels. Excessive quantities of sugar will need more insulin, and there is a point where your organism will no longer respond adequately to insulin, so you will eventually develop insulin resistance. Elevated levels of cortisol also contribute to this issue. 4 5 
  • Chronic stress means your levels of cortisol are constantly high. As a result, you may experience rapid weight gain, high blood pressure and heart rate, poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression, irritability, and disrupted metabolism. 1 4 
  • Furthermore, chronic stress can increase your risk of suffering from cardiovascular problems, and continuous and high sugar intake could eventually lead you to obesity and the development of type 2 diabetes.1 4

Recommended sugar consumption.

Let’s talk about the different types of sugars:

  • Natural sugars: these sugars are naturally found in fruits, some vegetables and milk.These are  fructose and lactose, respectively.
  • Added sugars: these are caloric sweeteners, which are added to foods and beverages before or during their preparation or processing, and table sugar (sucrose).

According to the guidelines provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO), your added sugar consumption should be less than 10% of your total energy intake.This also applies to children. As a further recommendation, the WHO suggests keeping the added sugars below 5% of the total energy intake. This energy intake will vary from person to person, so if you’re not sure about what your own consumption should be, you should consult your general practitioner (GP) or a nutritionist.   

In the UK, this equates to:

  • 30g of added sugar, or 7 sugar cubes, for adults.
  • 24g of added sugar, or 6 sugar cubes, for children between 7-10 years old.
  • 19g of added sugar, or 5 sugar cubes, for children between 4-6 years old.
  • For children under 4, it is recommended to avoid giving them added sugars.

Tips for stress reduction and healthy eating

You should know that everyone experiences stress to some degree, and it is completely normal. However, not everyone reacts to it the same way. It is important you know how to deal with challenging situations, to achieve good mental health and well-being. Here are some tips to manage stress and avoid always choosing the “eat sweet foods” solution:

  • Reduce your sugar intake by slowly changing processed foods with added sugar for healthier options and or fruits.
  • Try to create a nutritious and balanced diet plan that works for you. Don’t think you will change it overnight, as this takes time, and you need time to adapt to a new diet. There are nutritionists who can help you with this. Please note that a change in your dietary pattern doesn’t automatically mean that you must stop completely consuming sugary foods. You can still have these snacks in moderation.
  • Exercise can help reduce stress. Do any physical activity that works for you, and don’t try to push yourself to extreme limits.
  • Adopt healthy sleeping patterns as this could help you feel less stressed.
  • Incorporate mindfulness, journaling and other relaxing techniques in your daily life.
  • Seek professional help, e.g., therapy, to learn how to manage your stress.
  • Establish good social relationships, as they could support you during difficult times. 


Feeling stressed makes you crave sugar-rich foods for several reasons. Your Brain Uses glucose as its main source of energy, and under stressful conditions, more energy is required so the organ can perform its functions correctly. These snacks can increase your blood glucose or sugar levels. Hence, one reason you crave sugar in this situation. Moreover, sweets can activate the reward system in your brain, which can make you feel pleasant sensations, and reduce your distress for a short while.

However, excessive sugar consumption can have a negative impact on your health, as it can lead to insulin resistance, obesity and developing type 2 diabetes. Chronic stress can also lead to fluctuations in mood and energy and increase the risk of suffering from other diseases. Hence, you should limit your sugar consumption to the guidelines recommended by the World Health Organisation. In addition, you should also learn how to deal with stress and seek professional help to achieve optimal health. 


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  3. Chao A, Grilo CM, White MA, Sinha R. Food cravings mediate the relationship between chronic stress and body mass index. J Health Psychol [Internet]. 2015 Jun [cited 2024 Feb 7];20(6):721–9. Available from:
  4. Jacques A, Chaaya N, Beecher K, Ali SA, Belmer A, Bartlett S. The impact of sugar consumption on stress driven, emotional and addictive behaviours. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews [Internet]. 2019 Aug 1 [cited 2024 Feb 7];103:178–99. Available from:
  5. Kamba A, Daimon M, Murakami H, Otaka H, Matsuki K, Sato E, et al. Association between higher serum cortisol levels and decreased insulin secretion in a general population. PLOS ONE [Internet]. 2016 Nov 18 [cited 2024 Feb 8];11(11):e0166077. Available from:
  6. Jackson EM. Stress relief: the role of exercise in stress management. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal [Internet]. 2013 Jun [cited 2024 Feb 8];17(3):14. Available from:
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Dana Visnitchi

MSci, Neuroscience with Psychology, University of Aberdeen, Scotland

I’m an early career with a degree in Neuroscience with Psychology, who is passionate about mental health, and aims to promote it to a large audience without a scientific background. I’m also interested in skincare and cardiovascular health, and always keen to expand my knowledge. I have previous experience in literature search, creating content for different audiences, and making contributions to a published research paper about Gender Dysphoria. I’m currently focused on exploring medical communications to have a significant impact on the healthcare community. presents all health information in line with our terms and conditions. It is essential to understand that the medical information available on our platform is not intended to substitute the relationship between a patient and their physician or doctor, as well as any medical guidance they offer. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions based on the information found on our website.
Klarity is a citizen-centric health data management platform that enables citizens to securely access, control and share their own health data. Klarity Health Library aims to provide clear and evidence-based health and wellness related informative articles. 
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