Serotonin and Carbohydrates

The Placebo Effect

In the not so distant past, doctors sometimes prescribed what they considered inert substances to patients when there was no real medicine to cure their ills -- or when they believed that a patient was a hypochondriac. They called these pretend medicines "placebos" from the the Latin meaning "I will please." An oft used placebo was a sugar pill. After prescribing this placebo, doctors were surprised to find that patients did actually feel better. This is known as the "placebo effect", and it still confounds results in clinical trials, where some of the subjects are given a "real medication" and some are given a placebo. Many consider the placebo effect to be purely psychological.


However, no substance is completely without physical effect, least of all the sugar found in many placebos. Taking sugar does have an effect on our mood. It is not just a psychological phenomenon. There are chemical reasons for how this works.


Serotonin

Image Credit: The Wikipedia Molecular formula: C10H12N2O
Image Credit: The Wikipedia Molecular formula: C10H12N2O

Serotonin and insulin

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. The brain then produces more serotonin. (See the GO ASk ALICE link provided.)

Serotinin is a substance found both in our brains and in our gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin has many functions. In the brain, it acts as neurotransmitter, and it helps to regulate mood.

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. We don't need a doctor to prescribe us a placebo. We crave carbs when we are feeling down, and eating carbs can be an effective means of elevating our mood. The problem is that the effect only lasts for a little while, and then the patient comes crashing down, in need of an even higher dose of carbs.

Bipolar Disorder and Carobohydrate Consumption

In bipolar disorder, which was once called manic-depression, patients suffer from periods of depression followed in close succession by periods of high energy and euphoria known as manic episodes. A manic-depressive who self-medicates using the consumption of carbohydrates is very likely to trigger a manic episode.

The sugar-insulin-tryptophan-serotonin cycle is currently under scrutiny for a number of reasons. Because people who have high levels of serotonin don't feel hungry, some researchers are looking into uses of serotonin as an appetite suppressant. Others have suggested that low carb diets are to be avoided by those who have a predisposition to clinical depression, since serotonin levels are not stimulated by non-carbohydrates, and this is the reason a diet high in fat is seen as de-energizing. This is especially a problem for some people on anti-depressants, and paradoxically, they tend to gain weight.

However, stimulating the production of seratonin through sugar spikes followed by insulin has the effect of pushing the individual into a cycle that is likely to spiral out of control and will ultimately lead to diabetes and weight gain.

On the other hand, since the low carb/high fat diet leads to weight loss and reduced carbohydrate cravings, serotonin levels tend to stabilize, allowing the individual to avoid excessive highs and lows. People on a low carb diet may be less energized immediately after a meal, but they maintain high energy levels throughout the day. For those suffering from bipolar disorder, it is not the exact level of serotonin in the brain that is most significant. Having a stable supply of serotonin with no peaks or valleys is very important.

For this reason, it might be better to avoid the highs and lows of the carbohydrate consumption cycle. A low carb, high fat diet can help people keep a steady keel, with fewer mood swings.

(c) 2008 Aya Katz

Our favorite placebo

When you are depressed, what foods make you feel better?

  • potato chips
  • Coca-Cola
  • ice cream
  • cookies
  • milk
  • candy
  • sugar
  • mashed potatoes
  • pasta
  • fruit
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • wine
  • beer
  • poppy seed pie filling
  • halvah
  • sesame seed treats
  • honey
  • bread and jam
  • bread with no jam
  • jam with no bread
  • other
See results without voting

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Comments 53 comments

RoadLessTraveled profile image

RoadLessTraveled 8 years ago from Florida

Wow - this information is exactly what I was looking for! Thanks for sharing it with me. (My psychiatrist will be interested too.)

RoadLessTraveled


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks Author

RoadLessTraveled, I'm so glad this helps!


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 8 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

I suffer from depression and it worries me that I am not only on anti-depressants, (a mild form of Prozac), but I am also very thin, and pretty much always have been. From what I understand reading this Hub, if the tablets help keep my seratonin levels up, this will add to my lack of appetite, so stop me eating the calories I should be consuming. Currently my appetite is less than most children's and I weigh under 48 kilos at 5' 3" tall.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Mistyhorizon, it sounds as if your situation is completely different from the one where it's better to go low carb. People who are underweight should probably include carbohydrates in their diet. In fact, for those dangerously underweight, carbohydrates are recommended. Also, if you are not bipolar, then eating carbohydrates will in all likelihood not bring on a manic episode.

It might be good to consult with your doctor about this. The antidepressant may be interfering with your normal appetite.


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 8 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

Well my normal appetite was never great either, but I think I will mention it to my Doctor when I go in again in 3 weeks time. Thanks for the advice. :)


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 8 years ago from Oregon, USA

what about low glycemic index carbs such as agave?


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Hot Dorkage, I must admit that I am not familiar with agave. After you mentioned it, I looked it up in the wikipedia:

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agave

 

There wasn't information on nutritional content, though. So, I can only answer in general about carbohydrate foods that have low sugar content. Of course, it's okay to eat foods labeled as carbohydrates, but whose caloric content is such that the non-carbohydrate ingredients predominate. If a vegetable is mostly fiber and water and contains very little sugar, then it's quite okay to eat it, even when on a low carb diet, because what really matters is percentage of carbohydrate per number of calories in the diet. I wrote a hub about this a while back:

 http://hubpages.com/health/Which-Carbohydrates-do-...

In many plants, the non-caloric nutrients predominate, so that eating a bulky amount of them will still not cause a sugar spike in our bloodstream. It's also true that some plants contain higher amounts of protein and fat than we usually expect to find in a plant. Which of these is true in the case of agave, I don't know. Do you?

 

 


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 8 years ago from Southern California, USA

Very interesting hub on this subject and thanks for sharing. I am interested in the topic of bipolar disorder and intend to do more research about it.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

SweetiePie, thanks for dropping by. I look forward to hearing about the results of your research!


anne.moss profile image

anne.moss 7 years ago from Israel

Interesting hub. I also think that the glycemic index value is relevant. You're aboslutely right about the need to avoid the sugar and subsequent insulin highs (followed by the lows). I'm not sure that avoiding carbs is the answer, so much as avoiding carbs with high gylcemic index values. Carbs that are low on the GI don't turn into sugars so quickly, so they don't trigger the insulin response to the same extent.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Anne Moss, thanks for your comment. You're right. The glycemic index value is relevant. I'm not suggesting a total ban on carbs, even for those most vulnerable to the effects of a sugar high. Also, there are some foods which are labeled carbs because their calories come from carbohydrates, but the percentage of calories versus other nutrients is so low, they are negligible in a normal diet, and, thererefore, do not cause insulin instability. I have a hub about this:

http://hubpages.com/health/Which-Carbohydrates-do-...


bgamall profile image

bgamall 7 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

I agree with the article except that the low carb high fat diet should not be high in protein. Atkins or a misunderstanding of Atkins has caused a lot of kidney problems.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Bgamall, thanks for your comment. You're right, the role of protein in the big picture has been neglected. Some people now believe that heart disease and other problems previously attributed to a high fat diet are actually linked to one that is too high in certain proteins.


kjhaveri 7 years ago from Ahmedabad

It is a nice hubs.


kjhaveri 7 years ago from Ahmedabad

It is a nice hubs. Interesting hubs.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

kjhaveri, thanks for your comments!


bgamall profile image

bgamall 7 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

Aya I also believe that high fat can be a problem for people who need to watch cholestoral. That is a tough barrier, but your hub is great.

On my hub, Class Warfare I switched the posts to the latest post on top instead of on the bottom. I hope that didn't confuse you.


kjhaveri 7 years ago from Ahmedabad

It is a nice hubs. Interesting hubs.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Bgmall, thanks for your comment. I'm not sure about the cholesterol angle. I haven't done much research about it, but I have my suspicions that high cholesterol in a person does not necessarily correlate directly with eating foods high in fat or even those high in cholesterol. I'm basing this on the fact that eating high fat foods does not directly relate to high body fat. However, this is just a hunch, and if you have studies that show the opposite, then I would certainly be open to looking at them and learning something new on the subject. (Yes, I did notice that you switched the order on the Class Warfare hub.)

Kjhaveri, it's always nice to get appreciative comments!


bgamall profile image

bgamall 7 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

Hi Aya, hope we can still be friends. BTW you say you are from the Ozarks, I have been there often. My wife's relatives are going through a lot with the ice storm. Hope you are ok. I have been in one ice storm in my life, and that was enough.

As far as the fat and cholestoral is concerned, most traditional dieticians say they are connected but I don't know if they just mean animal fat or plant fat.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Bgamall, thanks for dropping by again. Sure, we can still be friends.

We've been snowed in for a while, and school was canceled, but we have plenty of supplies and are nice and cozy. Thanks for your concern.

I know that most dietitians conflate dietary fat with body fat, but that has been shown to be untrue. That is, ingesting a high fat diet does not make one fat. It is a diet high in grains and starchy and sugary foods (carbs)  that tends to make us gain weight. But I am less sure about the direct correlation between eating foods high in cholesterol and one's actual cholesterol reading.

In the past few years I have run into a couple of young women who were put on highly restricted diets by doctors who felt their cholesterol was too high. They were volunteers with Project Bow and young and fit and trim. I can't help but question whether severely curtailing fat intake in such healthy young people is a good idea.


bgamall profile image

bgamall 7 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

It would be interesting to contrast their cholestoral readings before and after the project.

Did you delete yourself from my friends list by accident? Or maybe it was somebody else. I don't really know. Thanks for the comments.

Gary


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Bgamall, I wasn't aware of deleting myself from your friends list. I'll go check, and if it looks as if I'm not on the list, I'll remedy that immediately!


kjhaveri 7 years ago from Ahmedabad

It is a nice hubs. Interesting hubs.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Kjhaveri, thanks!


kjhaveri 7 years ago from Ahmedabad

It is a nice hubs. Interesting hubs.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Kjhaveri, I love receiving comments. I don't want to seem ungrateful for all the attention. It's great that you keep commenting. However, I'm beginning to wonder what motivates you to keep posting the same comment over and over again. Are you just a nice person who is trying to encourage me? Or are you trying to tell me something that I'm not quite getting?


kjhaveri 7 years ago from Ahmedabad

It is a nice hubs.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Kjhaveri, thanks.


kshah 7 years ago from Ahmedabad

It is a nice hubs. Interesting hubs.


kjhaveri 7 years ago from Ahmedabad

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Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Kshah, thanks. You have a similar commenting style to that of Kjhaveri. Also, the same IP address.

Kjhaveri, thanks for your comment. What does it mean?


Tom 7 years ago

nice information. make me know how can I reduce my weight


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Tom, thanks for dropping by and for your comment. Hope this helps!


kjhaveri 7 years ago from Ahmedabad

It is a nice hubs. Interesting hubs.


opinion duck 7 years ago

Tryptophan is also abundant in Turkey and it makes you sleepy as does Serotonin and other tonins.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Opinion Duck, thanks for the additional information!


donotfear profile image

donotfear 6 years ago from The Boondocks

I liked this article very much. Being a mental health professional and having suffered from bouts of depression, I know first hand how the serotonin level works. I often found myself binging on sweets which resulted in a weight gain. Fortunately, I've been able to lose it, but I know there's a relation to the carbs I consume and the serotonin level in my brain. A low dose(20mg every other day) of Prozac helps very much. I pray that anyne who suffers from periodic depression will consider the regulation of serotonin instead of falling into deeper sadness. Great article.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Donotfear, thanks for sharing your experiences. I hope the information will be of help to others as well.


kaja_mel profile image

kaja_mel 6 years ago from Saraland, AL

Great hub Aya, this info was a lesson to me.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Kaja_mel, thanks!


maudiojazz profile image

maudiojazz 5 years ago from MS

A little meat in your spaghetti might balance things out a little more.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

maudiojazz, true. And a lot of meat with virtually no spaghetti might be even better, depending on your circumstances!


5 years ago

For people who have enough baseline Serotonin but have symptoms are due to blood sugar fluctuation a lower carb diet that is high in fat may be just the trick as blood sugar is more stable when there is more fat. However, if your Serotonin is already low, a low carb diet will only only lower the already low level of Serotonin. In order to manufacture additional Serotonin from meat there must be a ratio of about 4:1 to 7:1 in protein:carbs. So people who are chronically low in Serotonin may actually need a diet higher in carbs that is relatively low in protein and fat. Since the blood sugar stability issue probably still a relevant consideration - people low in Serotonin would need their high carb diet to be low in simple sugar and include some level of fats with each meal. The important thing is to eat only a small amount of meat, enough to provide Tryptophan but not so much protein so as to worsen the worsen the ratio of Tryptophan to the other large neutral amino acids also found in meat. In the end each of us needs to experiment to find the macronutrient ratios that make us feel best.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

S, thank you for your detailed comment. Much of what you say makes sense, and the most important thing is that it depends on the individual's baseline, and so it is a good idea for each person to determine what is best for them in their current state.


Sun-Girl profile image

Sun-Girl 5 years ago from Nigeria

Great and well detailed information which i so much enjoyed reading from.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Sun-Girl!


apnunes profile image

apnunes 4 years ago

Ever since I went paleo, I definitely haven't suffered from the mood swings. Now I know why I feel the way I do.

http://mymmadiet.com/wordpress/mma-diet


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 4 years ago from The Ozarks Author

APNunes, thanks for your comment.


kyla 3 years ago

hard choice on the vote rite there , but i say chocolate :p


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 3 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks for voting, Kyla. Chocolate is by far and away the front runner in this poll!


mma 3 years ago

Thanks for the sharing I know this is kind a off topic however , I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest writing a blog post or vice-versa? My site goes over a lot of the same subjects as yours and I believe we could greatly benefit from each other. If you might be interested feel free to shoot me an email. I look forward to hearing from you! Superb blog by the way!


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 3 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Mma. What sort of subjects do we overlap on? Nutrition? What else? Looking forward to hearing more about it.

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