People often talk about the physical effects of drinking too much soda — but can these drinks also affect your mental health?

It’s well known that too much sugar can be bad for your body. It’s logical to wonder if soda with added sugar or sweetener can be bad for your mental health, too.

Research on the role of regular and diet sodas in depression is just emerging, but it may make you think twice about picking up that next can of pop.

There are many factors to consider regarding soda and mental health, including blood sugar and long-term health effects.

Effects of soda on the body

Although any exact connection remains unknown, some experts believe soda may harm your mental health for several reasons.

First, sodas can spike your blood sugar levels quickly. That’s because they provide sugar without any fiber or nutrients to slow its absorption. High blood sugar levels can cause inflammation in the brain, which is linked to depression.

Second, drinking too much sugary soda can lead to weight gain, and some research suggests that excess weight can increase the risk of depression.

A recent 2019 meta-analysis suggests that just 2 cups (473 mL) of sugar-sweetened soda per day may increase depression risk by 5%.

Long-term effects

Long-term studies have investigated how regular soda intake may affect your mental health.

A 2017 observational study tracked the eating habits and mental health status of more than 10,000 people for 5 years. It concluded that drinking sugary beverages increased the risk of developing depression.

An older 2014 cohort study tracked over 250,000 older adults over 10 years. It found that those who drank 2–3 or more cans of soda a day had a 16% greater risk of developing depression than people who didn’t drink any. In addition, the more soda the participants drank, the greater their risk of being diagnosed with depression.

Although it’s not possible to definitively conclude that drinking soda increases your risk of depression based on observational studies like these, the results do indicate that more research on a possible connection is warranted.

Even though sugar appears to be the culprit in any negative effects of soda, diet options may not necessarily be any better.

Like regular sodas, diet sodas have been linked to a higher risk of depression. In fact, the same 2014 cohort study mentioned above suggests that the risk is higher for diet sodas than sugary ones.

Further, in a cohort study from 2017, female participants who drank one or more diet drinks a day were significantly more likely to have depression.

These results may be related to the content of artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose in diet drinks. Some researchers speculate that these sweeteners could negatively affect the brain and mental health.

For instance, a small 2014 randomized double-blind study gave 80 healthy adults a diet high in aspartame. Still, their daily intake was below the acceptable daily intake. After 8 days, the participants had more irritable mood, more signs of depression, and worse scores on cognitive tests.

Keep in mind, though, that most people don’t consume as high levels as those used in this study. Still, the cumulative effect of drinking diet sodas sweetened with aspartame over many years may be worth considering.

It’s generally believed that aspartame blocks the release of important neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin in your brain. These compounds play key roles in mood and well-being. Lower levels are often seen in people with depression.

In addition, aspartame may cause oxidative stress and increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It’s speculated that this can damage neurons in the brain and cause symptoms of depression.

So, while cutting out sugary sodas might improve your mental health, diet sodas are not necessarily a good alternative.

Certain foods may help protect you from developing depression.

According to the same 2014 study in over 250,000 people referred to earlier, coffee and tea may decrease your risk of developing depression. It’s speculated that these drinks can protect your brain from harmful oxidative stress thanks to their anti-inflammatory properties.

However, avoid going overboard on the coffee. The above-mentioned cohort study from 2017 indicates that drinking more than 4 cups (946 mL) a day could instead increase your risk of depression.

Foods rich in fiber like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, may also help ward off depression. Fiber helps keep the bacteria in your gut healthy, which positively impacts your mental health.

Healthy high fiber foods include:

  • beans
  • chickpeas
  • vegetables
  • berries
  • nuts and seeds

Dark chocolate is another excellent choice when it comes to fighting the blues. It has powerful mood-boosting properties — just make sure to choose a low-sugar version.

Magnesium is a mineral that’s essential for good mood and mental health. Diets low in magnesium are linked to a greater risk of depression.

High-magnesium foods include:

  • legumes
  • dark leafy green vegetables
  • pumpkin seeds
  • yogurt

Vitamin C is another key nutrient when it comes to mental health. It’s needed for the brain to produce dopamine, an important neurotransmitter involved in mood. Vitamin C also reduces inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain.

Excellent sources of vitamin C include:

  • citrus fruits
  • tomato juice
  • bell peppers
  • broccoli

To reduce your risk of depression, it can help to avoid foods high in sugar and fat like pastries, cake, and ice cream. Recent 2020 research suggests that these foods create inflammation in the body and contribute to depression.

To cut down your intake of sugar, also keep an eye on how much fruit juice you drink. Just like soda, these drinks can be a high source of sugar. Other often-overlooked or hidden sources of sugar include ketchup and salad dressings.

In addition, try to limit or cut out processed foods like potato chips, hot dogs, and sugary breakfast cereals. A large 2019 cohort study labels these as inflammatory foods directly linked to increased symptoms of depression.

Lastly, cut back on how much alcohol you drink. Although many people often turn to alcohol when feeling down, any potential relief is short-lived. Long-term, alcohol can increase the risk of depression.

While definite conclusions are lacking, current research suggests that regular and high intakes of sugary and diet sodas might increase the risk of developing depression.

The high sugar content in regular sodas and the artificial sweeteners in diet soda could be to blame for these potential adverse mental health effects.

Still, that doesn’t mean you should never drink soda again. It’s fine to indulge once in a while, as long as you don’t make it a daily habit.

If you find yourself often craving and reaching for a soda, try to instead opt for alternatives like:

  • water
  • herbal tea
  • coconut water
  • vegetable juice
  • sparkling water
  • cucumber-and-lemon-infused water