That moment. Life is tough. Feeling down. It is not our day, our week, our month, or even our year. The blues set in and even moments of depression hit. Then, it happens! The carb cravings come at full blast, and indulging in the sweet, salty or savory treat makes life calm and better for a moment. With every deep breath and bite, some sadness is released and room is made for calming happiness. But after the food is gone, reality hits and the blues sweep back in- taking over with a vengeance. Why is it that carb cravings occur during the blues?
Carbohydrates (aka carbs) can possibly increase chances of tryptophan reaching the brain and increasing serotonin.
Let’s break this down. There are neurotransmitters called dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin that contribute to our overall mood and emotions. Serotonin is responsible for calming and improving mood. A key in serotonin production is tryptophan, an amino acid found in protein-rich foods- such as that milk alongside our cookies.
Now, where do carbs come into play? Tryptophan needs glucose (carbs break down into glucose- aka sugar) to speed up the process. Carbohydrates stimulate insulin to be released into our bloodstream. With sugary carbs, this process happens quickly. Insulin pulls other amino acids (along with sugars) into the muscles, giving tryptophan a better chance to reach the brain and increase serotonin. For that temporary moment, mood is improved, and calmness takes over.
The carbs craved may bring us closer to a good memory.
Grandma’s pie. Mom’s cookies. Ice cream with Dad and Grandpa. Having some candy with friends at the movie. Sharing some chocolates with your Love. Carbohydrates have found their way into many experiences that bring joy and happiness. It is not uncommon to associate specific treats with happy memories, and use that food to relive the moment to reproduce a positive feeling.
Cultural and traditional carbs bring us closer to who we are and who we may have “lost” amid the blues.
Baklava during Ramadan or Rosh Hashanah. Hot cross buns and chocolate eggs at Easter. Pan Dulce, conchas, and churros at a sister or friend’s Quinceañera. Malva pudding and custard or Koeksister to remember South African heritage. Each culture has a set of foods that are traditional and can even hold symbolic meaning. We all have those carb-heavy foods and treats “we were raised on.” During the blues, there may be a sense of feeling lost and not like yourself. Reaching for a treat that is specific to your culture and upbringing may give you a taste of the “old you” that is missed.
Remember this, carbohydrate foods have their place in our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It is okay that we all may seek the serotonin high from carbs when the blues hit hard; however, my suggestion is to not let this drag out too long. Find a way to balance the areas of your health- not letting one come at the cost of another. For example, being so concerned about your physical health that you don’t give yourself permission to enjoy the tasty carb and moment of happiness that maybe your mental health needs. Or only using “carby” treats as a means of temporary pleasure but not addressing the root of the unhappiness and allowing your physical health to slip. It is a balancing act.
Easier said than done, right? None of us are alone in this, though. There are health professionals who can help in this balancing act of carb cravings, physical health, and mental and emotional well-being: Registered Dietitians, Psychologists, Mental Health Counselors, Primary Care Providers, and Exercise Physiologists are just a few of many. We are in this together, with cookies and milk in one hand and our favorite protein in the other!
Sabrina Goshen, MS, RD, LD
Hancock Wellness Center – Greenfield