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Sweet Delusion: Why We Crave Carbohydrates
A popular women's magazine recently trumpeted its cover story with large, bright letters saying: 'The Return of Comfort Food!'
And what a return it was. Twelve pages long with the most spectacular and mouthwatering food photography imaginable: overflowing plates of pasta, pans of casseroles, mashed potatoes and gravy, towering layers of cake with chocolate frosting, and so on. I'm sure that issue was a big seller. After all man or women. . . who doesn't love comfort food?
According to the article, the majority of American women do. For women, comfort food lives up to its name as they consume up heaping quantities of piping hot, creamy, heavy and gooey carbohydrate-laden meals to actually help stop depression and control mood swings. Psychologists identify this as using food as therapy.
And therein lies the problem.
Serotonin – the Happy Hormone
At the heart of the connection between carbs and the way women and men feel is serotonin – the happy hormone – and one of the brain's many neurotransmitters. Formed in the brain, serotonin is involved in the transmission of nerve impulses between nerve cells.
In the brain, serotonin's main effects include improving mood and giving you that "satisfied" feeling from food. It has been suggested that neurones that use serotonin as a transmitter are involved in coping responses to acute and chronic aversive events.
Remarkably only 2% of the total body's serotonin is in the brain (other locations include the lining of the digestive tract, and in blood platelets), although its activity in the brain is what's affected by psychiatric medications. Drugs and situations that reduce the amount of serotonin available in the brain result in depression as a side effect. Now you see why the scientific community is convinced that serotonin is involved in the causes of depressive illness. Some drugs, like Prozac, can actually lower serotonin to such a point that they can actually cause suicide. Which is why they have a black box warning on the labels of these meds. More on that later.
That serotonin is often referred to a the 'happy hormone', is no accident: it greatly influences an overall sense of well-being and also helps to regulate moods, calm anxiety and relieve depression. It is also credited with being a natural sleep aid. Other duties of serotonin include regulating body temperature, aggression, appetite, metabolism and sexuality. Research has also shown that women's brains produce less serotonin and deplete their store of the chemical more rapidly than men, thus increasing their need to often elevate their mood with food.
Carbohydrate-rich meals typically increase serotonin levels. However, manipulating serotonin levels through food may be very difficult to achieve because serotonin's properties may have varying effects in different people. Some people may experience a temporary lift in mood after a carb-heavy meal, while others may become relaxed or sleepy. Candy (simple carbs) will increase serotonin levels for up to 2 hours, while complex carbohydrates (rice, potatoes, pasta) may increase serotonin levels, but not to the same extent because the protein content of these foods tend to actually inhibit serotonin production.
How food affects serotonin levels is interesting: after eating a high carb meal, the hormone insulin is secreted. Insulin lowers the blood levels of most amino acids (the building blocks of protein), except for tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin). Amino acids compete for transportation across the blood-brain barrier, and when there is a larger proportion of tryptophan, it enters the brain at a higher rate, thus boosting serotonin production. To make matters more interesting, tryptophan is present in many protein-rich foods, which have been found to prevent serotonin production. So tryptophan is a key, but it is difficult to use and absorb unless taken in supplemental form.
Effect of a Low Serotonin Level
Low serotonin levels are associated with a wide range of disorders. Several studies proved that low serotonin production or activity is observed in people with multiple psychological and biological disorders. People diagnosed with clinical depression often have low serotonin levels in the brain. Low levels of serotonin may be related to sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea. Further, low levels of serotonin is also considered to be an underlying factor in weight gain or weight loss for individuals suffering from eating disorders and depression. Among them: anorexia, Carbohydrate Craving Obesity (CCO), Pre-menstrual symptoms (PMS) and more.
In a landmark study of the relationship between carbohydrates and depression, Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Judith Wurtman and MIT professor Richard Wurtman concluded that “not only is carb craving is part of daily life, but is related to decreases in the feel-good hormone serotonin, which when reduced is marked by a decline in mood and concentration."
But here's the problem: While carbohydrates raise serotonin levels naturally and act like a natural tranquilizer, the Wurtmans discovered that the brain makes serotonin only after a person consumes sweet or starchy carbohydrates – and, here's the kicker – the carbs must be eaten in combination with very little or no protein. This can cause the blood sugar to rise resulting in a corrresponding spike in insulin. The body then uses the insulin as a storage hormone to store the extra sugar as, guess what . . . FAT. So it becomes a vicious cycle of binging on carbohaydrates with a correspoding rise in blood sugar followed by a rise in insulin followed by fat storage followed by low blood sugar followed by carbohydrate craving and so forth and so on.I remember several years ago I used to have a 24 year old women in my local town cut my hair. She had been a high school beauty queen. Her husband joined the army and was sent to Iraq. She became lonely and depressed. She had great fear that her husband was going to be killed. Well I am sure you know why I am including this story..She started binging on carbohydrates to combat the depression. When her husband returned on leave after a year in Iraq his wife had gained over a hundred pounds. He then divorced her.
In case no one told you, obesity not only poses a major risk for chronic disease, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke and certain forms of cancer, it also shortens your life span by up to 12 years. The obesity epidemic in the USA, I believe, can be quantifiably linked to the series of events described in the above text. It's unfortunate, but so many of our obesity issues today can easily be avoided by taking the proper supplementation to naturally increase serotonin – to stop carbohydrate binging.
Another example: Recently, a woman (who was already in great shape) decided to go on a high protein low-carbohydrate diet to reduce body fat. Her diet, included (a cod liver oil supplement), reduced carbs and fat. Unfortunately, within a month she was diagnosed as clinically depressed. In fact, her mood swings were so extreme, not even her husband could handle them. It was only because her husband realized what the problem was and that she was willing to take corrective action, did her condition reverse itself without the potential nightmare of psychiatric intervention. When she took the proper concentration of supplements (listed below). Within 48 hours, her symptoms were gone and she was feeling great. Yes, it was that simple and that fast.
So consider this: A carb-heavy meal like pasta allows the brain to make serotonin while, eating chicken or steak will actually prevent serotonin from being made. According to Wurtman's clinical studies, if the carbohydrate craver eats protein instead, she (or he) becomes grumpy, irritable or restless.
The downside to this is that filling up on lots of fatty foods (like bacon or cheese) makes you tired, lethargic and apathetic. That's no good. And though people feel good while eating sweet carbs, they're also ingesting considerably more harmful sugars and starches than they should. And again the only outcome of this behavior . . . is weight gain, obesity and a whole new set of health issues, including diabetes.
Adding to the Wurtman's study, researchers at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center went even further to say that carb cravers who are mildly depressed seem to be self-medicating to make themselves feel better. (Using food as a mood-altering drug to increase serotonin is a frequent cause of weight gain). The researchers studied overweight women that had a history of carb cravings and gave them a choice between a protein-rich beverage or a carb-rich one. They found that when the women reported being in the worst moods, they picked the carb beverage more often than the protein one. They also found that the carb drink improved their mood better than the protein drink.
The return of comfort food? Call it 'death and obesity food.' Send it back! Don't eat it!
The Link Between Antidepressants and Suicide
Antidepressant medications are designed to 1) make serotonin more active in the brain and, 2) extend that activity for longer periods of time – all while they assist in regulating moods. However, doing so can deplete the raw material stores the body needs to manufacture serotonin, thus resulting in suicidal behavior. I know I've mentioned this already, but it is such important information that it bears repeating.
A class of medications called monoamine oxidase inhibitors and tricyclic antidepressants , such as Marplan, Nardil, Prozac and Zoloft. These drugs work to prevent the breaking down of neurotransmitters, allowing them to increase in the brain and relieve depression.
Unfortunately, these antidepressants have many serious and well-documented side effects: the fact that they tend to react dangerously with various other types of medication is alarming enough, these drugs are also linked to the emergence of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. In many cases, these thoughts occur in people who have never even thought about suicide.
A British Columbia, Canada study was conducted on nearly 300,000 men and women who had been prescribed antidepressants between 1997 and 2005. The study evaluated whether specific antidepressant medications would increase the risk that a person would attempt or complete suicide during their first year of taking that drug. Among the 287,543 men and women in the study, there were 751 suicide attempts and 104 suicides.
In 2004 the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to clinicians, patients, families and caregivers that children and adolescents taking antidepressants might have an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. In 2006, it extended the warning to include young adults up to age 25 (I personally believe that these side effects are NOT age specific and that these drugs can induce suicidal thought and actions in anyone taking them). However, if you're currently taking these drugs consult your medical doctor before discontinuing their use. As a result, all antidepressant labels must now carry a "black box" warning stating that they can increase a person's likelihood of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The drugs cited by the FDA include Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Prozac. These suicidal tendencies are in addition to the already established side effects of anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, insomnia, irritability, hostility, impulsivity, akathisia (severe restlessness), hypomania, and mania.
Feeling Good . . . Without the Risks
Evidence shows that improving one's mood doesn't have to come at such a high cost.
Certain fats, vitamins and minerals deficiencies have repeatedly been identified as the culprits behind occurrences of depression, which can then be remedied with supplements. Among those helpful minerals and nutrients:
5-Hydroxytryptophan : also known as oxitriptan (INN), is a naturally-occurring amino acid that has be shown to successfully enhances the synthesis of serotonin in the treatment of depression, overeating and insomnia.
Certain vitamins and minerals have repeatedly been identified as the culprits behind occurrences of depression, which can then be remedied with supplements. Among those helpful minerals:
Manganese This metal is needed for proper use of the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. Since it also plays a role in amino-acid formation, a deficiency may contribute to depression stemming from low levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. Manganese also helps stabilize blood sugar and prevent hypoglycemic mood swings.
Magnesium Deficiency can result in depressive symptoms, along with confusion, agitation, anxiety, and hallucinations, as well as a variety of physical problems. While stress also contributes to magnesium depletion, most American diets do not include enough this mineral. Calcium: Depletion affects the central nervous system. Low levels of calcium cause nervousness, apprehension, irritability, and numbness.
Zinc Inadequacies result in apathy, lack of appetite, and lethargy. When zinc is low, copper in the body can increase to toxic levels, resulting in paranoia and fearfulness.
Iron Depression is often a symptom of chronic iron deficiency. Other symptoms include general weakness, listlessness, exhaustion, lack of appetite, and headaches.
Potassium Depletion is frequently associated with depression, tearfulness, weakness, and fatigue.
B vitamins are essential to our emotional well-being. And since they can't be stored in our bodies, it's important to include them in diets each. Alcohol, refined sugars, nicotine, and caffeine are responsible for B vitamin deficiency. A high quality B complex supplement is super important
The following details B vitamin's relationship to depression:
Vitamin B1 (thiamine): Used by the brain to help convert glucose (blood sugar) into fuel. Deprived of this fuel, the brain rapidly runs out of energy, which can lead to fatigue, depression, irritability, anxiety, and even thoughts of suicide. Deficiencies can also cause memory problems, loss of appetite, insomnia, and gastrointestinal disorders. The consumption of refined carbohydrates, such as simple sugars, drains the body's B1 supply.
Vitamin B3 (niacin): Early stage vitamin B3 deficiencies can produce agitation and anxiety, as well as mental and physical slowness.
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid): Needed for hormone formation, the uptake of amino acids and the brain chemical acetylcholine, which combine to prevent certain types of depression. Symptoms of deficiency are fatigue, chronic stress, and depression.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): Needed in the manufacture of serotonin, melatonin and dopamine, this vitamin aids in the processing of amino acids – the building blocks of all proteins and some hormones. A marginal deficiency sometimes occurs in alcoholics, patients with kidney failure, and women using oral contraceptives. Certain antidepressants may also lead to a shortage of this vitamin. Many nutritionally oriented doctors believe that most diets do not provide optimal amounts of this vitamin.
Vitamin B12: Because vitamin B12 is important to red blood cell formation, deficiency leads to an oxygen-transport problem known as pernicious anemia. This disorder can cause mood swings, paranoia, irritability, confusion, dementia, hallucinations, or mania, eventually followed by appetite loss, dizziness, weakness, shortage of breath, heart palpitations, diarrhea, and tingling sensations in the extremities. Deficiencies take a long time to develop, since the body stores a three- to five-year supply in the liver. When shortages do occur, they're often due to a lack of Intrinsic factor (If) – an enzyme which allows vitamin B12 to be absorbed in the intestinal tract. Because it diminishes with age, older people are more prone to B12 deficiencies. This one is super important.
Folic acid: This B vitamin is needed for DNA synthesis. It is also necessary for the production of S-adenosyl methionine. Poor dietary habits contribute to folic acid deficiencies, as do illness, alcoholism, and various drugs, including aspirin, birth control pills, barbiturates, and anticonvulsants. It is usually administered along with vitamin B12, since a B12 deficiency can mask a folic acid deficiency.
Why Women Crave Chocolate
Unofficially (or officially, depending on whom you believe) chocolate is the number one food women crave. As long as they're eating dark chocolate, nutritionists agree, it's actually okay to occasionally indulge in this oh-so guilty pleasure. And they do: in the U.S. alone, women – who purchase 75% of all chocolate sold – spend almost $12 billion dollars annually on the stuff.
While nobody has yet put a finger on why women love chocolate, all kinds of theories abound, from chocolate releasing chemicals in the brain that simulate happiness and feels of sexual arousal to the luxuriant 'mouthfeel'. Nobody really knows.
What we do know is that chocolate contains a group of ingredients that gives you an overall optimum happy brain feeling. They are: Theobromine (a caffeine-like stimulant), Tryptophane (which increases the brain's serotonin levels for a happy, feel-good result), Phenethylamine (which releases endorphins) and of course, fat and sugar (a comfort food staple that makes chocolate so creamy).
Chocolate's Health Benefits
So . . . sugar and fat aside, is chocolate good for you? Yes and no.
Cacao – the base ingredient from which chocolate is made – is a powerhouse of flavonoids, an antioxidant. Emerging research claims that flavonoids in dark chocolate can increase blood flow, which could in turn, helps reduce high blood pressure. Other benefits of flavonoids in chocolate include: reducing the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and age-related degenerative diseases. There's even some research that indicates flavonoids may help prevent tooth decay and reduce the occurrence of the flu.
The rule of thumb here is this: the higher the percentage of cacao, the higher the percentage of flavonoids.
But not all chocolate is created equal: Because there are more flavonoids in dark chocolate, milk chocolate falls short of having the same health benefits of dark chocolate. Be sure to choose a high quality dark chocolate with the highest percentage of cacao you can find. Also, read the labels. Ideally, the chocolate you select should have a low amount of saturated fat and zero trans fat.
Here are the recommended supplements to maintain a healthy brain chemistry.
B5 and B6 in the morning with food
Sublingual B12 – 1 dose under tongue 3 times daily
Cod liver oil – 1 teaspoon daily
1% hydroxytryptopheane – 1 - 2 times a day
You can also use our Stevia or Organic Coconut Sugar as a low glycemic sugar substitute.