I was a backseat passenger getting a ride to a book club meeting, and became the unwilling witness to the front seat bickering between the driver and his wife. I knew both of them well and became concerned that their discussion was more acrimonious than usual. As we left the car, the husband mentioned that he was unable to control his anger over what he deemed trivial nonsense.
“I am thinking of seeing someone about anger management, and she is just as bad,” he confided. “Everything sets her off. If I leave a plate in the sink or accidentally interrupt her, she goes off on a tirade.“
I was startled. They had been married for decades and had even run a successful business together. What was coming between them now?
The answer was soon evident as we settled ourselves in the living room. When offered cookies with their coffee, both of them responded, almost in unison, “No thanks, we are off carbohydrates for the next few months.” Seeing my startled expression, they launched into a description of a new diet which forbade any carbohydrate, except certain fruits and vegetables.
“We’ve been on the diet for 3 weeks and together we already lost 6 pounds,” they announced.
Yes, I thought, and you also lost your ability to live with each other without arguing. They needed to eat carbohydrates so their brains could make serotonin, the neurotransmitter that maintains a feeling of emotional well-being. Was their strict denial of carbohydrates decreasing serotonin levels, and thereby their level of emotional comfort?
Obviously we argue, disagree, and get irritated and angry with each other in marital, business, social, and family relationships. But I suspect that very few of us realize that our ability to cope with conflict, however small or large, may in part depend on what we eat. Nature gave us a particular brain chemical, the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps us cope with conflict, calms us down, allows us to focus on the essential and not get distracted. We all have serotonin but when we don’t have enough, or it isn’t sufficiently active, the coping, calming function of our brains may be impaired.
Anyone doubting that decreases in serotonin activity might rapidly affect mood and human relations never met anyone suffering from PMS. This hormonally-induced change in serotonin at the end of the menstrual cycle may transform an usually calm and tranquil woman into someone who overreacts to small irritants, frustration and annoyances by becoming angry, weepy, tense and agitated.
Unlike my bickering friends, premenstrual women do not bring on this change in mood because they eliminated carbohydrates from their diet. But, happily, premenstrual moods do improve when women consume small amounts of sweet or starchy carbohydrates. These carbohydrates cause insulin to be secreted and that, in turn, allows tryptophan to enter the brain. Serotonin is made from tryptophan and as it is synthesized, within 20 minutes or so after eating carbohydrates, measurable improvements in premenstrual mood result.
My friends don’t have PMS, but they are certainly showing the symptoms of serotonin inactivity. Can their marriage be saved by a potato? Is it possible that teeth-gnashing conflicts could be minimized, or even altogether avoided, if only they had a bowl of pasta for dinner or shared a bowl of popcorn together? It’s amazing what positive change carbohydrate uptake can effect.
A weight-loss group that I ran several years ago advised one of its members to load up on carbohydrates whenever her mother-in-law came to visit. Apparently the woman habitually found fault with everything her daughter-in-law did, and their conflict spilled over to the husband, who just wanted to be left alone to watch football. A week of carbohydrate-based dinners proved helpful: the complaints became muted, the husband did not retreat to the television set, and our group member told us it was the first time she got through such a visit without crying.
Fortunately for married couples whose serotonin may be running out, they will not have to find a marital therapist to get them back together. About three days of eating healthy carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, and rice will boost their brains’ serotonin levels and restore their good moods.
But it is worrisome that following a diet, which arbitrarily eliminates an essential class of nutrients, could have such an impact on personal relationships. Many diets restrict carbohydrates because, as we all know, certain carbohydrate-containing foods like chocolate, doughnuts, cookies, pizza and French fries are loaded with fat. These diets often allow fruit but, alas, fruit sugar does not bring about an increase in serotonin. And, of course, the dieter may not realize that the calorie content of carbohydrates and protein is identical so that weight loss is not affected when calories come from either healthy low-fat carbohydrates or low-fat proteins.
Carbohydrates are unfairly seen as the enemy of weight loss, while they should be instead hailed as the friend of a harmonious relationship and sated appetite.
What to do about my quarreling friends? I’ll invite them for dinner and serve pasta.