I remember myself as a teen athlete – showing off how much pasta I could devour at the all you can eat pasta and salad bar. At the time I thought it was fairly cool – it was kind of the proxy measure as to how much training you were doing.
But its incredible how hooked people are on sugars and carbs, athletes and non-athletes alike! When I say hooked , I really mean seriously hooked. The talk seems fairly light-hearted and superficial – “I’ve got to start the day with cereal and juice” or, “I just couldn’t go a day without bread, pasta or rice”. But underneath this talk lies some very real sinister implications of the chemicals moving in and out of our brains.
To be honest, being ‘hooked on carbs’, exhibits all the characteristics of the definition for an addiction – “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal.” (Merriam-Webster)
Hooked on carbs: the basic science in 5 steps.
- Enter serotonin. A neurotransmitter, found in the GI tract (mostly) and also in the central nervous system, where it controls mood, appetite and sleep. It’s serotonin that shoots up after your morning coffee. To make serotonin, the brain sucks tryptophan (an amino acid from protein foods) out of the blood and rapidly converts it into serotonin- and whamo…you’re feeling groovy.
- Now if you had a high protein meal (say a steak etc.) the tryptophan would compete (for movement out of the blood into cells and tissues) with the other amino acids from the steak, and as a result, very little tryptophan would move into the brain – and you wouldn’t get the hit you were looking for.
- But wait! … thankfully that steak, comes with a large fries, 16 ounces of cola and a tub of ice-cream. Now this changes everything … starting with the blood being smashed with glucose – probably even before the steak is broken down into amino acids.
- The rising blood sugar, kicks the pancreas, which wakes up to dump a load of insulin into the blood stream. The insulin starts knocking on the cells (muscles, liver etc.) door – and says ‘open-up, open-up’ – and so the glucose and amino-acids move out of the blood and into the cells.
- Now the tryptophan (still in the blood) doesn’t have other amino acids to compete with – and therfore, it flows easily into the brain, where its converted to serotonin….and woh! ….”say, I feel good.”
Then comes the next part to the story … the blood sugar levels start declining …other hormones are triggered – and before you know it, you start feeling a little tired, a little hungry – and everything starts coming together for the whole cycle to repeat itself again…..would you believe me if I told you this swinging-cycle, could repeat itself over 10 times a day for many people?
Well it does – and aside from the feel-good / feel-flat swings, the bigger concern is the addiction to the cycle and the subsequent consequences like obesity, chronic inflammatory illnesses, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and more.
The Healthy-hit: without being a sugaholic.
The good news is there’s a number of better ways to boot serotonin up – and get the feel-good factor levels up. Here’s three key good practices to work into your daily routine –
Sunlight: Get plenty of bright-light every day. There are many studies showing the relationship between the amount of light a person receives – and their mood. In human postmortems, more serotonin is found in the brain in those who died in the summer, than those who died in the winter. Many depressive states are tied to seasonal characteristic of low-no sunlight. So get outdoors and spend some time every day – with your skin/eyes exposed to the sun – no sun glasses – no lotions/creams, no ankle to neck clothes. Now, in Asia, I predict, we’ll soon see studies, that heavily polluted manufacturing cities like Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai – will show increases in rates of depression, caused partially by, reduced sun exposure and lower serotonin levels. Ideally – we all want and need real sunlight, but thats not always possible. In Scandinavian country’s we see ‘light cafes’ to help people get through winters. I suspect we may see more of this in other parts of the world, allowing others also to get a good daily dose of light.
Exercise: Now from experience, any athlete knows the heightened sense of well-being and vigor that comes with a little exercise….I dont think I need to say much here. But, studies from both animals and humans continue to show the relationship between heightened serotonin levels and exercise. In fact recent, EEG studies highlight how exercise shifts brain activity, bringing back balance, and decreased tension/anxiety.
Diet: Firstly lets get one thing clear. Taking serotonin doesn’t help…and why is that? Well its fairly straight forward, since serotonin can’t cross the barrier between the blood stream and the brain. So don’t waste your money on taking serotonin. Now earlier we talked about carbs triggering insulin – to pull the sugar and aminos out of the blood and into the cells (like muscles etc.) – and then the tryptophan in the blood being able to move into the brain and be converted into serotonin. Well there’s another way to also get the aminos and glucose out of the blood and into the cells – and its called…you guessed it – exercise. In fact muscular contractions – trigger other insulin-independent metabolic processes that also move glucose and amino acids out of the blood stream and into the cells. The production of some free-radicals from exercise also trigger this process. So taking some aminos (whey powder etc.) in drinks, training bars or protein-foods during your training sessions- will be a great way to not only feed the muscles with quality aminos for repair – but will also set you up for a good dose of tryptophan to move into the brain, and convert into ‘feel good’ serotonin. I note whey powder above – and there is good reason, since it contains something called alpha-lactalbumin – which is able to bring very good sources of tryptophan into the body.
So there you have it – get your feel-good factor kicked into top-gear, while avoiding refined carb living.
Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing, be nice to each other, be spike-free.