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Artificial sweeteners linked to higher risk of depression

Researchers have discovered a potential link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods, particularly those containing artificial sweeteners, and an elevated risk of depression.

While ultra-processed foods have been associated with physical health issues such as heart attacks, strokes, and hypertension, this is the first comprehensive study to hint at a possible correlation with increased instances of depression. 

Studying artificial sweeteners and mental health

The findings are drawn from data encompassing more than three decades of dietary and mental health records of over 30,000 middle-aged women. All participants initially did not have any diagnosed depression. 

The study, executed jointly by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, observed the dietary habits of these women from 2003 to 2017. 

How the study was conducted

The researchers meticulously analyzed consumption patterns of various ultra-processed foods, including grain foods, sweet and savory snacks, ready-made meals, beverages with artificial sweeteners, processed meat, dairy products, fats, and sauces.

Adjustments were made for potential confounders such as socioeconomic status, lifestyle choices, and other health-related factors. 

What the researchers discovered 

The research, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, indicated a staggering 49% elevated risk of developing depression in those who consumed nine or more portions of ultra-processed foods daily, compared to those who ingested fewer than four portions.

Moreover, individuals who decreased their ultra-processed food consumption by at least three servings daily showcased a diminished risk of depression compared to those maintaining a consistent intake.

The researchers highlighted a notable observation regarding artificial sweeteners. Experimental studies have hinted that these sweeteners might instigate specific signaling mechanisms within the brain, pivotal for mood regulation.

More research on artificial sweeteners

However, experts in the field voiced varying opinions on the findings. Keith Frayn, a distinguished professor from the University of Oxford, emphasized the conspicuous connection between artificial sweeteners and depression, advocating for further investigations into this matter. 

“The relationship between artificial sweeteners and depression stands out clearly. This adds to growing concerns about artificial sweeteners and cardiometabolic health. The link with depression needs confirmation and further research to suggest how it might be brought about,” said Professor Frayn.

Underlying predisposition?

Professor David Curtis from the University College London Genetics Institute commented that the sole dietary component linked with an elevated depression risk in the study was artificial sweeteners. 

He added that higher consumption might be an outcome of an underlying predisposition towards depression rather than a direct cause.

Significance of the study 

“The strength of our study is that we were able to assess diet several years before the onset of depression. This minimizes the likelihood that our findings are simply due to individuals with depression being more likely to choose ultra-processed foods,” said study co-author Professor Andrew T. Chan from Massachusetts General Hospital.

The research lays the foundation for more in-depth explorations into the potential implications of dietary choices on mental health. With depression becoming increasingly prevalent globally, understanding such connections could be pivotal in preventive strategies and holistic well-being.

Implications for the future of artificial sweeteners

“These findings suggest that greater ultra-processed foods intake, particularly artificial sweeteners and artificially sweetened beverages, is associated with increased risk of depression,” the authors concluded.

“Experimental studies have shown that artificial sweeteners may trigger the transmission of particular signaling molecules in the brain that are important for mood.”

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