The Antidepressant Diet

The connection between carbohydrates, serotonin, and antidepressant weight gain

Why Cranky People Crave Sugar

Science explains the reason you crave…

In all the almost hysterical hype about sugar, which can paint this food with the same toxic attributes as arsenic or even nicotine, one fact is never mentioned. This sugar craving by emotionally miserable individuals may be a symptom of something awry with their serotonin levels.

Some who crave sugary foods are women who suffer from premenstrual syndrome. These women suffer from monthly menstrual cycle mood changes that would take them out of a competition for Miss Congeniality. Although these symptoms, thankfully, rarely last longer than two weeks each month and usually only two or three days, women feel transformed into a female Godzilla. Anger, muddle headedness, anxiety, depression, fatigue, mood swings, and irritability are some of the more common symptoms that women often feel helpless to do anything about.

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Similar symptoms and sugar cravings are also common among people going through alcohol withdrawal. The symptoms usually appear within a day or two after alcohol intake ceases and may last for weeks. Anxiety, depression, not thinking clearly, fatigue, irritability and mood swings are characteristic feelings among those who have gone from excessive alcohol intake to none.

A change in season is sufficient to cause excessive moodiness, exhaustion, irritability, depression and anger. People who live where the sun rises late and sets too early for much of the late fall, winter, and early spring feel these moods descend on them like ice coating a car windshield, and may be unable to rid themselves of these miserable feelings until mid or late spring. These symptoms are not a reaction to depressing weather reports. They have been identified as a particular type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder and are tightly associated with cravings for sweet foods.

Why are PMS, alcohol withdrawal, and Seasonal Affective Disorder associated with an intense craving for sugar? These are three entirely different types of emotional misery and yet the woman with PMS would, “…kill for chocolate,” the recovering alcoholic could, in the words of a blogger on an alcohol withdrawal web site, “…eat a bucket of sugar,” share cravings for sweet carbohydrate. They also share this craving with a diagnostic feature of seasonal depression. Are these people sugar addicts? Has sugar caused their symptoms? Has it rotted their brains so they are left with all these dreadful emotions? If so, then why don’t women crave sugar when they don’t have PMS, as in the early stage of their menstrual cycle?

Why do recovering alcoholics eventually lose their overwhelming craving for sweets? Why is it that the person with Seasonal Affective Disorder rarely eats sweets during the spring and summer when the depression is gone, and replaced by the feeling of well-being? Indeed, if, as the sugar police suggest, sugar leads to addictive behavior, worse even than cocaine addiction, eating sugar should cause a permanent longing and craving for this dreadful nutrient. Why aren’t these people permanently addicted with brains shredded from their sugar consumption?

Certainly among the categories of intense sugar cravers described above, this does not happen.

The craving for sugar, like craving water, is simply a signal that something is missing in the body. When we are thirsty, we do not think we are having withdrawal symptoms from water. We know that thirst is a signal that the body needs water. No one is addicted to water even though severe withdrawal symptoms, including, ultimately death, can occur when denied.

Sugar is not water. No one is going to die from its absence. But the moods associated with a craving for sugar can be pretty dismal. This is because the sugar cravings associated with the crankiness of PMS, alcohol withdrawal and Seasonal Affective Disorder signals low serotonin activity. We know, but know not why, monthly hormonal changes affect serotonin. We know, but not how, the absence of light in the winter affects serotonin. And we know, but do not completely understand that low serotonin activity is common among many excessive drinkers.

Animal and research studies conducted over the past 30 years or so have shown that consuming any carbohydrate (except fructose) increases serotonin levels, and subsequently can improve moods. As sugar is digested faster than, say, rice or buckwheat groats, the longing for it among the emotionally distressed may be based on an unconscious desire to consume something that will work fast to make the eater feel better. When one is very thirsty, one gulps water. In a sense, eating something sugary is like gulping water. It takes away the bad feelings faster than chewing on a hard piece of whole grain bread.

Is it necessary to eat sugary foods to feel better? NO. As soon as any non-fructose (fruit won’t get the job done) carbohydrate is digested, serotonin will soon thereafter be made and moods will get better. And indeed, going through PMS each month, enduring weeks of alcohol withdrawal, or months of Seasonal Affective Disorder by munching on rich chocolate may increase weight as well as improve mood. Oatmeal, plain Cheerios, or a couple of graham crackers will do just as well.

But one should heed the dual symptom of crankiness and sugar craving. It is just your body's  signal to increase serotonin, and thus go from feeling miserable to mellow.

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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