Depressed Kids May Have a Sweet Tooth

November 12, 2012

Depressed Kids May Have a Sweet Tooth

A new report published online in the journal Addiction by researchers from the Monell center suggests that the strength of the response to a strong sweet taste has an association with incidence of alcoholism in the child’s family and reports from the child themselves concerning feelings of depression.

The study has highlighted the link between family factors and biological background and the child’s strength of response to liking a sweet taste.

The study’s main author is Julie A. Mennella, PhD, who is a developmental psycho biologist at Monell and she says. “We know that sweet taste is rewarding to all kids and makes them feel good”. She adds that the study shows, “In addition, certain groups of children appear to be particularly attracted to intense sweetness due to their underlying biology”.

The study involved 300 children from 5 years old up to 12 years old and consisted of children tasting five drinks containing varying levels of sugar (sucrose) in water. They were then questioned with regard to their preferred sweetness level. In addition to this the children were questioned to see if any depressive symptoms could be seen whilst a family background relating to alcohol use was given by the mothers.

It is known that alcohol and sweet tastes both trigger related ‘reward’ mechanisms within the brain. By understanding family histories in relation to alcohol the researchers felt that they could work on children more likely to succumb to alcoholism. Depression was investigated too because the researchers reasoned that if a child has depressive indications then they would like sweet tastes more because it would make them brighten up.

It was found that almost 50% of the participants had alcoholism in the family. A parent, brother or sister, aunt, uncle or grandparent had previously been diagnosed as being alcohol dependent, and out of these children about 25% received a classification indicating that they exhibited symptoms of depression.

The children who enjoyed the extreme sweetness the most were the 37 boys and girls who reported with symptoms of depression and had a member of their family as diagnosed with alcohol dependency. These children craved an intensity of sweetness which could only be satisfied by 24% sucrose which is double the sweetness in a regular can of cola and equivalent to having 14 teaspoonfuls of sugar in a cup of water.

The other children found that 18% sucrose was their favorite, about 25% down.

The researchers acknowledge that the perceived association between liking very sweet tastes in earlier life and a tendency to misuse alcohol in later life is still tentative. Manella comments, “At this point, we don’t know whether this higher ‘bliss point’ for sweets is a marker for later alcohol use”.

Earlier research investigating the qualities of sugar to reduce depressive symptoms in adults appeared to show that sugar did indeed help to reduce the symptoms. In addition to this it has been found that sugar not only tastes good to children, it can also act as an analgesic pain killer.

With this background the researchers investigated the pain killing qualities of sugar. They placed the child’s hand into cold water and then timed how long the child could bear the cold before removing his or her hand. They carried out this same operation twice on every child, once with sucrose in their mouth and once with water. The non depressed kids, on average, left their hands in the cold water for 36% longer if they had sucrose in their mouths showing the analgesic qualities of sugar. But when looking at the children showing signs of depression no time difference was noted meaning that sucrose had no effect on the pain.

Of this finding Mennella says, “It appears to be that even higher levels of sweetness are needed to make depressed children feel better”. She talks of initiatives around the world advocating healthier eating, which includes cutting back on sugar intake yet her findings indicate when dealing with children who may have depressive tendencies then a specialist approach may be required to wean them off sugar.

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