Sadness, Sugar and Serotonin



Have you come across the idea that carbohydrates such as sugar and grains cheer you up because they cause serotonin to be released in your brain? Eating those sugars seems to lift our mood, and that leads so many of us to overeat those foods, especially when we feel low.

As serotonin is thought to create our sense of happiness, it’s often suggested that if you keep your serotonin levels boosted you won’t feel as tempted to eat so much. This sort of advice pops up regularly on radio interviews, newspaper articles and on the Internet.

And following on from this, it’s suggested that if we overeat, it’s because we are deficient in serotonin and need more of it to encourage more positive feelings and to eliminate food cravings. The theory is that when we have enough serotonin we don’t feel the need to boost levels with our favourite treats.

If these ideas are ringing true for you, here are some other ideas to consider.

  • Almost all of our serotonin is manufactured in the gut. However, maintaining a healthy digestive tract is just as much about what you don’t eat as what you do, and a salad isn’t going to make much difference if your digestive system isn’t functioning well. (1)
  • There are kinds of food that contain the precursors (building blocks) that create serotonin in the body and brain. The main one is tryptophan, found in proteins and green leafy vegetables. Of course, very few people crave these foods; mostly because it takes about an hour for them to become metabolised and get turned into serotonin.

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that the happiness (joy, pleasure) you feel from eating sugary carbohydrates is felt immediately. This isn’t coming from the effect of serotonin, but from the release of opioids and dopamine, from the brain’s natural survival system, rewarding you for eating something of value.    The food may not have had any value, but your brain doesn’t know that. It’s a kind of trick or illusion; refined carbohydrates seem to be rewarding, even though they aren’t.

The point is that this positive, rewarding feeling – also known as instant gratification – only lasts while the food is being consumed. (2)

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  1. Marie-Claire

    Very timely this for me – I gave up stuffing self with choc etc and started running about 4 years ago – read your book etc and have never really felt better but recently squashed in mobile home with my mother and husband off work with minor knee opp and house being rebuilt I have noticed I have started eating choc again – on my own and it tasting so good and making me feel so good – I have stopped running and stopped healthy eating and stopped doing everything I was enjoying – I can see me eating the choc and feeling good – and then feeling miserable due to the lack of fitness and extra fatness – it isn’t helping me at all but something in my brain is overriding the common sense and giving into the passive aggressive atmosphere I am coping with here – or not – right now. After 3 months of this behaviour I feel an utter failure – which is daft – but how quick this happiness fix takes over when other health supporting actions don’t seem to make anything feel good – I see irony in this today.
    Ditched the 3rd strong coffee of the am for decaff green tea – it is a start… 🙂

  2. Sarah

    Wow! Thank you for this post. This information is so spot-on for me. I have such a hard time articulating and understanding why I turn to food when I’m feeling certain emotions. Like you said, I’ve conditioned myself to turn to carbohydrates/sugar when I’m feeling sad, anxious, etc. Do you have any advice/suggestions for breaking that conditioned response? Thank you!

  3. Chancery

    I’m struggling with this very issue currently, and further to your comments on Brogan’s work, I’ve read two books recently on antidepressants, both citing new research that suggests that the problem for depressed people may actually be too MUCH serotonin, not too little and that scientists have misunderstood how SSRIs work – an interesting thought.

    Speaking personally, I’ve also found that the comfort eating ideology may be slightly misdirected for some of us. I too had always accepted that my binge-eating of sweets was a mood-lifting exercise and only recently realised the opposite was true. In actual fact I binge eat when I am stressed, i.e. my brain is over-excited and wired up. I realised that the sensation I was seeking was calm. Chocolate makes me feel soporific and not-give-a-damn. This takes a big weight off me constantly pushing and fretting, so it’s not really about lifting my mood but perversely lowering it. It is still comfort, of course, so still comfort eating! But I think people might sometimes miss the point of what the food is actually doing for them and therefore not be as effective at working on some other way of dealing with it. Unfortunately, for me, it’s my biggest stumbling block – I just can’t find an alternative to chocolate for calming me down. I can just see my doc’s face if I told him I wanted Valium to replace binge-eating. Oddly enough, I might be healthier on Valium, but I doubt if that would sway him one iota. Valium is addictive, don’t you know, but of course, chocolate isn’t. We fat people all eat it just because it tastes nice…

    • I have many more questions for you before I could point to answers, but I know you could come up with something more empowering than ‘I can only calm down by eating chocolate.’ I wonder what kind of chocolate it is, too – dark or cadbury’s – because the latter isn’t really chocolate at all.

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