Using Sugar to Cope with Stress?

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Do stress and low mood make you reach for sweets? Perhaps low serotonin be the culprit behind your bad mood and carbohydrate craving?

What is serotonin?

Serotonin is your calming and happy neurotransmitter. Many antidepressant drugs and natural remedies seek to increase serotonin. Serotonin is associated with good mood, stress resilience, and carbohydrate cravings(1)⁠.

How does carbohydrate increase brain serotonin?

Serotonin cannot enter the brain, so the brain produces serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan, which can enter the brain through a transporter protein(2)⁠. Eating a high-carbohydrate meal increases insulin, which causes other tissues to take up other amino acids, making tryptophan relatively more abundant. At the same time, insulin stimulates the protein transporter to move more tryptophan into the brain, thus increasing serotonin1⁠. This is why eating a high-carbohydrate meal can make you feel relaxed and sleepy.

Why is sugar the enemy of serotonin balance?

Ice cream and cookies can temporarily lift your mood because they are high in sugar. However, eating sugar to feel better could lead to more brain imbalances in the long run, especially in people with a tendency for depression or anxiety. In mice and rats, long-term sugar consumption blunted the serotonin receptors 1A and reduced serotonin production in the brain(3,4)⁠⁠. The animals also ate more calories because they had less serotonin function. These effects were more pronounced in female animals than in males.

In overweight women who craved carbohydrates, increasing serotonin with antidepressants caused them to snack less, which led to weight loss(5)⁠. Therefore, low serotonin also causes cravings and overeating in humans. 

However, the drugs had several side effects and sometimes led to dependency. Also, artificially increasing serotonin levels, such as by taking drugs or consuming sugar, could blunt the serotonin receptors. Therefore, it is better to balance serotonin levels naturally, if possible.

How to banish carbohydrate craving naturally by balancing serotonin levels?

Sugar could worsen brain imbalances. Therefore, if you tend to have mood or mental health issues, it is especially important to pay attention to your sugar consumption. The good news is that there are many ways you can balance your serotonin levels and fix your carbohydrate craving naturally.

Manage stress and practice self-care

Stress reduces the serotonin receptors 1A in the brain(6)⁠. In fact, you may already notice that stress causes you to reach for sweets and other high-carbohydrate foods. Therefore, in order to successfully balance your serotonin levels, it is important to practice self-care and find healthy ways to manage your stress.

Detox from sugar

A sugar detox helps your body biochemically recovers from the harmful effects of sugar while honoring your body with a balanced diet and a supplement protocol as you wean off of it.

Try a low-carb or a ketogenic diet

A study in the journal Obesity found that a low-carbohydrate diet reduced carbohydrate cravings and hunger(7)⁠. Therefore, staying away from carbohydrates can help reduce sugar cravings. 

Increase serotonin naturally

Getting sun exposure, exercising, and, in the short-term, supplements like 5-HTP can help increase serotonin levels to mitigate the carbohydrate cravings.

References 

  1. Wurtman, R. J. & Wurtman, J. J. Brain Serotonin, Carbohydrate-Craving, Obesity, and Depression. Obes. Res. 3, 477S-480S (1995).
  2. Fernstrom, J. D. Large neutral amino acids: dietary effects on brain neurochemistry and function. Amino Acids 45, 419–30 (2013).
  3. Inam, Q.-U.-A., Haleem, M. A. & Haleem, D. J. Effects of long term consumption of sugar as part of the meal on serotonin 1A receptor-dependent responses. Pak. J. Pharm. Sci. 19, 94–98 (2006).
  4. Inam, Q.-A., Jabeen, B., Haleem, M. A. & Haleem, D. J. Long-term consumption of sugar-rich diet decreases the effectiveness of somatodendritic serotonin-1A receptors. Nutr. Neurosci. 11, 277–82 (2008).
  5. Pijl, H. et al. Evidence for brain serotonin-mediated control of carbohydrate consumption in normal-weight and obese humans. Int. J. Obes. Relat. Metab. Disord. 17, 513–20 (1993).
  6. Savitz, J., Lucki, I. & Drevets, W. C. 5-HT1A receptor function in major depressive disorder. Progress in Neurobiology 88, 17–31 (2009).
  7. Martin, C. K. et al. Change in food cravings, food preferences, and appetite during a low-carbohydrate and low-fat diet. Obesity 19, 1963–1970 (2011).

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