Carbohydrates in sweets and starchy foods seem to act on the brain chemical serotonin. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter regulates many of our feelings including pain, sleep, mood and hunger. Carbohydrates increase serotonin levels, making you feel calmer and less irritable. So turning to carbohydrate based foods for relief from stress may seem logical. However, you run the risk of overdosing on carbohydrates, especially if you were hungry to start with. A diet high in carbohydrates can also lead to insulin resistance leading to obesity and the beginning of type-2 diabetes.
Know More About Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates can be classified as:
Slow carbohydrates are also known as “good” carbohydrates as they have low GI (glycemic index – ability of a food to raise blood glucose levels). They raise blood sugar levels gradually, providing a steady stream of energy to our body cells – especially the cells in the brain. Slow carbohydrates typically include foods closest to their natural state – “whole foods” – whole grains like oats, broken wheat, brown rice; lentils and beans, nuts and seeds, fruits and raw vegetables. They are high in fibre and other essential nutrients – vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Fast carbohydrates include high glycemic index foods. They are a source of quick energy as they are digested rapidly causing a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, possibly hyperglycemia followed by a steep drop in blood glucose levels causing reactive hypoglycemia. Foods with sugar and refined flour (maida), like naans, samosas, white bread, cakes, cookies, burgers/ pizzas/ready-to-eat snacks, fruit juices, etc., are loaded with “fast carbohydrates”. So, it may seem logical to restrict or go slow on “fast” carbohydrates, particularly when you are eating for reasons other than hunger.
Sugar Yourself to Sleep
Interestingly, sugars have also been reported to have a calming effect owing to the increased production of serotonin (said to have a calming effect and a role in good sleep). However, increased sugar intake through regular consumption of sweets, cakes, cookies, desserts, chocolates, sweetened beverages, fruit juices, fizzy drinks and excessive intake of high glycemic- index foods can be counter-productive. Combining carbohydrates and proteins enhances the availability of serotonin in the brain.
Carbs Calm You
Many foods high in carbohydrates like breads, grains, cereals, chocolates also contain amino acid (building blocks of proteins) called tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin. Tryptophan gets converted to serotonin through a series of reactions, which has a calming effect on our bodies. Tryptophan is a regular constituent in most of the commonly consumed protein-based foods. It is particularly plentiful in chocolates, oats, bananas, durians, mangoes, dried dates, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, lean red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, sesame, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, spirulina, and peanuts (refer table for tryptophan content of foods). No wonder, a warm glass of milk or hot chocolate make typical night caps!
Chocolates Make You Happy
Chocolate is believed to boost serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain. It is largely due to substances called phenyl ethyl amine (PEA) and tyramine. The smooth “melt in the mouth” consistency (due to cocoa butter) along with caffeine may also help elevate the mood.
Some nutrients that have shown to improve one’s mood include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Folate and other B vitamins
- Snack on small amounts of nuts, seeds, dairy foods through the day to prevent swings in blood sugar and cravings.
- Ideally, eat something within 2-3 hours in small portions and avoid large meals.
8 Calming Foods to Try
- Muesli/granola in milk
- Oatmeal porridge
- Honey coated nuts
- Jaggery coated nuts
- Yoghurt and fruit
- Hot chocolate
- Almond milk
- Dried fruits and nuts