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)