I always have fish and chips on a Monday, except I don’t eat fish so it’s either a hamburger or souvlaki. Sometime during the week, I have a pepperoni pizza; and another day, it’s a cheese pizza. Chinese take-out is on Thursday. In there, as well, is a hell of a lot of Cadbury’s, and maybe some ice-cream.
Yes, my diet sucks. But I’m too scared to change it!
I suffer from depression and I take 100mg of sertraline (anti-depressant) daily. It took 3 years of experimentation and dark, scary days to reach a place where, despite everything, I’m pretty good. Antidepressants are also called serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, preventing the supply of serotonin in the brain from going down. However, antidepressants are not the only way to elevate serotonin levels. Many ordinary people self-medicate when they are feeling depressed by eating lots of carbohydrates.
I don’t question this theory – in fact, I am a total believer.
Here is how ingesting sugar – or some carbohydrate that is broken down into sugar after digestion – can alter our mood for the better. When we digest carbohydrates, our blood sugar levels rise, and then insulin is secreted, lowering the blood levels of most amino acids with the exception of tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin. When there is more tryptophan than other amino acids, it enters the brain at a higher rate, potentially alleviating a functional deficiency in brain serotonin and thus serving as self-medication. The brain then produces more serotonin. Studies focused on this link appear to back this up: high carbohydrate meals raise serotonin, while fatty or protein rich meals tend to lower it. The type of carbohydrate chosen seems to be based upon its glycemic index, or how high it causes blood sugar levels to peak. The higher glycemic index carbohydrates like sugar have a greater effect on serotonin than starchy, lower glycemic index foods like potatoes.
And it’s not just sugar that we crave: certain alkaloids have been isolated in chocolate that may raise brain serotonin levels. Scientists now speculate that chocolate addiction may actually have a real biological basis with a serotonin deficiency being one factor. Another basis that has been proposed for why chocolate has such a powerful influence on mood is that chocolate has ‘drug-like’ ingredients including anandamines, caffeine, and phenylethylamine.
Expert tips to avoid the cravings include:
- Be honest with yourself about how deep your problems with food go – I figure I can’t really be more honest than this!
- Distract yourself by doing something else – oh yeah! because that works for the 61.5% of the Australian adult population considered overweight or obese! (Sorry – couldn’t find up to date figures on ALL the other countries!)
- Exercise! Exercise stimulates the feel-better chemicals called endorphins and improves your mood. But it’s awfully hard to exercise when you can’t get yourself out of bed…
- Drink a glass of water. Really? (need I say more?)
- Be mindful of what you are consuming rather than grazing all day. A food journal can be very helpful – if you want to keep track of what you will need from the supermarket!
So, when doctors, websites, other bloggers, family and friends tell me that perhaps I need to alter my diet to help with my FM, all I can think of is the return of the Big Black Dog.
P.S. I love footnotes!
 Gendall & Joyce, 2000; Sayegh et al., 1995; Velasquez-Mieyer et al., 2003; Wurtman & Wurtman, 1995
 Pijl et al, 1993; Spring, Chiodo & Bowen, 1987; Wurtman, 1990; Wurtman & Wurtman, 1995
 Rouch C, Nicolaidis S, Orosco M. ‘Determination Using Microdialysis, of Hypothalamic Serotonin Variations in Response to Different Macronutrients’ Physiological Behaviour 1999 Jan 1-15;65(4-5):653-7.
 Lyons PM, Truswell AS. ‘Serotonin Precursor Influenced by Type of Carbohydrate Meal in Healthy Adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1988 Mar;47(3):433-9.
 Herraiz T. ‘Tetrahydro-beta-carbolines, Potential Neuroactive Alkaloids, in Chocolate and Cocoa’ Journal of Agriculture, Food and Chemicals 2000 Oct;48(10):4900-4
 Bruinsma K, Taren DL. ‘Chocolate: Food or Drug?’ Journal of American Diet Association 1999 Oct;99(10):1249-56
 Benton D, Donohoe RT. ‘The Effects of Nutrients on Mood’ Public Health Nutrition 1999 Sep;2(3A):403-9