The Antidepressant Diet

The connection between carbohydrates, serotonin, and antidepressant weight gain

Halloween Candy and the Countdown to the Election

Everyone's waiting worldwide

Was it symbolic that the moderator of the intense, adrenaline-fueled second presidential debate was named Candy? When Governor Romney called out, "Candy, Candy, Candy" to get her attention, my adrenaline was so high that I was looking around for some myself. I expect the third debate presented the same necessity to anxiously overindulge.

Maybe it is a good thing that the candy-infused holiday, Halloween, appears before the election because we may all need the calming qualities of the sweet stuff to endure the results of election night.

There is an urban myth that candy, or any other sweet carbohydrate (yes, sugar is definitely a carbohydrate, same as rice or oatmeal), will give us a feeling of intense pleasure, the so-called sugar rush. Added to this myth is the one claiming that children become hyperactive on sugar. Both myths have been shown to be wrong in clinical studies in which volunteers did not know they were ingesting sugar before they had their mood tested. Indeed, in the long-ago studies of Judith Rapaport, M.D. at the NIH, children who drank a sugar-loaded beverage tended to fall asleep soon afterward. We also found that volunteers, even those with particularly agitated, anxious, worried, irritable and angry symptoms (e.g., women with PMS), became calm, tranquil, patient and pleasant after consuming a beverage containing sugar and other carbohydrates.

So as I wandered around the house looking for some candy to calm myself down before going to sleep (fortunately I have a stash of cherry Twizzlers for this kind of situation), it occurred to me that the candidates themselves should be eating something sweet to bring themselves down to a more tranquil and relaxed state. I have an image of Governor Romney and President Obama sharing a dish of candy corn after the debate was over.

Candy decreases our stress and increases contentment because its sugar content starts the process of making serotonin in the brain. Candy that contains substantial amounts of fat—e.g., chocolate—delays this process since fat takes such a long time to be digested. Of course, any carbohydrate other than fructose will produce the same results—i.e., more serotonin, less agitation and more calmness. But so-called simple carbohydrates work faster than say, the starchy carbohydrate in flour. If the candy corn, for example, is eaten on a relatively empty stomach, its effect on subduing intense feelings and producing tranquility can be felt within 20 minutes.

The relaxing power of carbohydrates should be used to turn off mental activity before bedtime. It is hard to go to sleep when lists of what you must do upon awakening dance before your pillow or you lie in bed reviewing all the unsolved problems of the day. Eating a few graham crackers, pretzels or rice cakes with honey an hour or so before planning to sleep puts your brain in "hibernate" mode. The lists and problems are still there, but "categorized" if you will, where they won't interfere with your falling asleep.

Interestingly, protein has the opposite effect. Two of the amino acids in protein are necessary for the production of brain chemicals involved in mental intensity and alertness. The ideal eating plan for a presidential debate—or any event that requires mental adrenaline—would consist of lean protein (high-fat makes people feel lethargic) for the pre-debate meal, and a handful of candy pumpkins after it is over. Regardless of the outcome, the stress will be diminished for both the participants and the audience.

Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., is the co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet and the founder of a Harvard University hospital weight-loss facility.

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