Why We Crave Carbs and Sugar?

It’s all in your mind. Meet serotonin.

Irritability, hard to focus and to fall asleep, low energy and a craving for sugar or carb-heavy foods. Sound familiar? You're probably low on serotonin.

That intense longing for a slice of pizza or pasta loaded with cheese is actually just your body telling you that it needs a boost in the form of this infamous neurotransmitter that has scientists and psychiatrists researching it in a tizzy.

Serotonin is your best friend and your worst enemy.

In the right amounts, it helps regulate mood, keeping you positive, giving you nights of sound sleep and days of productivity.

Too much of serotonin and, “we get confusion, high blood pressure, and possibly even psychosis, aggression, stroke and death. Too low, and we get anxiety, violence, suicide, and insomnia.” says Emily Deans, M.D. in her article about Sunlight, Sugar and Serotonin in Psychology Today.

The tricky thing about serotonin is to get the right amount of it in your body through your diet. Will need to resort to a little more science trivia here though (and then I’m done!) to explain just how that works. Researchers at MIT found out from this study that:
"When humans are fed diets that are specially formulated to be deficient in tryptophan, their appetite dramatically increases, which leads to binge-eating carbs and refined sugar.”

Serotonin’s pal is  tryptophan. Tryptophan is a dietary amino acid (or protein) that we need to make serotonin. Don’t reach out to a supplement bottle just yet. Healthy amounts of tryptophan can be found in almonds, nut butter, fish, eggs, pumpkin and sunflower seeds.

The tricky bit here is, in order for tryptophan to release serotonin, it needs to be coupled with the right amount of carbs.

“Everyone is waiting in the lobby for the elevator, and only a few can ride to the top at a time.” says Dr. Emily describing the transportation amino acids in our body to the brain. Add a little bit of carbohydrate to your tryptophan carrying protein and it is first in line for the brain. Which is all well and good. You feel relaxed, calm, even a little sleepy for at least a couple of hours until the brain shuts off. Then you’re back to craving carbohydrates again.

“This type of stimulation makes you want to eat carbs over every other type of food, because a high-carbohydrate meal delivers tryptophan to the brain quickly, enabling serotonin to be formed.” —  Rosanna Davison

Simply put, sugar, carbohydrates, and even caffeine, can spike your serotonin for a couple of hours and send it crashing back down, leaving you feeling moody and emotionally unstable.

How do you ensure that your diet isn’t getting in the way of your mental well-being?

Here are some simple tips, straight from our experts at Wysa. Consider it your cheat-sheet to mental resilience and stability!

Do’s and Don’ts:

  • Next time a sugar or carb craving strikes, take notice. Drop the fork, take a step back, and ask yourself: what was the trigger? Are you stressed, angry, sad, or just plain bored? These are emotional reasons that deserve your attention.
  • Are you hungry or thirsty? The hunger and thirst centers of the brain are located very close to each other in our brains. Drink a glass of water before you start to snack.
  • Sweets and carbs activate the reward center in our brain. Consider another rewarding activity, like a massage, a bubble bath, a cup of tea, a good book, social interaction, music, dance… the list goes on. You just need to pick!
  • Try to include healthy proteins with every meal. They provide the right amount of amino acids, fiber and blood sugar levels to keep your energy and mood stable.
  • This one’s pretty obvious, but easier said than done. Get adequate sleep! Research is constantly links less sleep and low serotonin levels which, if you’ve been paying attention, leads to a craving for sugar and heavy carbs.
  • Run, swim, dance, play a sport, or just go for a walk. Exercise makes a world of a difference to your mood, apart from helping you process your food more efficiently, allowing the serotonin to reach your brain.

There, you're now equipped to handle the midnight cravings, as well as the guilt that comes along with them. Here’s to eating your way to a happier, more positive you!

If you’ve got any questions, do write to us here, and we’ll get our experts to answer them!

BONUS: We also found this pretty cool food table from that categorizes what your cravings are actually telling you. If you’re thirsting for that glass of wine or jelly, then you may actually need potassium, calcium or phosphorus, which can be found in some healthy alternatives, here.

Words by

Uttara Krishnadas

Content Writer at Wysa

Citations from Sources:

1. Jenkins TA, Nguyen JC, Polglaze KE, Bertrand PP (2016) Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Nutrients, 8(1), 56. PMID: 26805875

2. Portas CM, Bjorvatn B, Ursin R (2000) Serotonin and the sleep/wake cycle: Special emphasis on microdialysis studies. Progress in Neurobiology. PMID: 10622375

3. Cansev M, Wurtman RJ (2007) Aromatic amino acids in the brain.Handbook of Neurochemistry and Molecular Neurobiology, Third ed., vol. 6, Chpt. 4, pp. 60-97, (A. Lajtha, ed.), Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg. ISBN: 9780387303468.

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