Medication and Sugar-Highs

There were two interesting and somewhat interrelated articles in the Chicago Reader last week. In The Straight Dope column, Cecil Adams replied to a letter on sugar highs and their effect. In the cover story, a Freudian literature professor writes a book about over-diagnosing what used to be known simply as shyness. Both, I think, are worth a gander.

First, on sugar:

Q: I’m always hearing parents talk about the sugar rush their kids get after eating sweets: “Uh-oh, watch out! Little Ignatz just had two M&Ms!” I thought I had read somewhere that this effect is either greatly exaggerated or nonexistent. What’s the story?

your classic controlled double-blind affairs: two groups of kids, one fed a bunch of sugar, the other given a placebo (i.e., artificial sweetener), everyone kept sufficiently in the dark as to who’d gotten what, etc. The results? No discernible relationship between sugar ingested and how the kids acted. It didn’t matter how old they were, how much sugar they got, what their diets were like otherwise — nothing….

… For a crucial piece of the puzzle we turn to the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology and a 1994 study by Daniel Hoover and Richard Milich, in which they looked at 31 boys ages five to seven and their mothers, all of whom had described their offspring as being “behaviorally affected by sugar.”

The mom-son teams were split into the customary two groups: the moms in one were told their sons would be given extra-sugary Kool-Aid, while the others were told their kids were in the control group and would get a drink sweetened with aspartame. In reality, though, the same artificially sweetened stuff was administered to both sets of kids while the women got a sheaf of surveys to fill out. Mothers and children were then videotaped playing together, after which the moms were asked how they thought things went.

What did Hoover and Milich find? You guessed it: the moms who thought they were in the sugar group said their sons acted more hyper. In addition, they tended to hover over their children more during play, offer more criticism of their behavior, etc. The mother-son pairs in the other group were judged by observers to be getting along better. What’s more, those moms who, going into the experiment, most strongly believed their kids were sugar-sensitive also scored highest on a test designed to gauge cognitive rigidity….

[Ya ever heard of this thing called Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? It happens a lot. And now for the disclaimer and closing:]

I should stress we’re not talking here about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is its own freestanding issue; studies have suggested there’s some correlation between ADHD and diet, so maybe every so often you’ll get a kid whose condition really is exacerbated by sugar. And there are plenty of other good reasons to limit children’s consumption of sugar-laden food. But when a parent freaks out because a swig of soda has allegedly made his kid uncontrollable, it’s quite possible he’s not just seeing the behavior he expects to see, he’s helping create it.

Now, on to Praxil:

[Christopher] Lane, a Victorian literature scholar and professor at Northwestern, had… published a book on misanthropes in the Victorian era, which he says “had a relatively high tolerance for eccentrics, reclusives, hermits, and scolds.” He wanted to carry his study into the 21st century. But when he began asking psychiatrists about the fate of contemporary misanthropes, the response he got was that they’d likely be medicated…

It looked to Lane like the much more common trait of shyness, which Victorians had actually valued as a sign of modesty and a contemplative mind, had been transformed into something called social anxiety disorder. People who dreaded giving speeches, or blushed when they were the center of attention, or who, like Lane himself, needed a certain amount of their own company, were popping pills that promised to turn them into breezy extroverts. How had this happened?

[Hint, check the distinctions between the DSM II and III, which was first released in 1980.]

The correlation that I understood is that these types of emotional/psychological/physiological ‘maladies’ are actually in the head – that in these instances (as opposed to say, clinical depression), Western (or at least American) society tells us that we need to come up with a solution for every conceivable problem – and so we make them up. The problem that is diagnosed isn’t a real problem. But something else, something deeper and not really related may be the real problem, the real threat.

So, keep your eyes closed, swallow these pills, stay away from sweets, lock the doors in your car when you’re going through a bad neighborhood. Medicate yourself, you’ll be all right.


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