Comforting Coronavirus Stress With Carbs

Carbohydrates can create increased production of calming serotonin.

Posted Mar 16, 2020

Who isn’t stressed these days? Added to the usual list of stressors, no one can escape what is happening across the country (and the globe) with the outbreak of the coronavirus. For most of us, yet unaffected, it is a matter of washing our hands, following precautions such as avoiding crowds, and finding toilet paper in the supermarket. For others in quarantine, self-imposed or imposed by government regulation, the time is frustrating at best and, of course, stressful because it is uncertain if the virus will appear during the period of social isolation.

Is it possible to exacerbate or diminish the stress we are all enduring by what we are eating? Before our world was affected by the coronavirus, what we chose to eat was determined by our convictions that certain foods were acceptable or not based on basic health concerns, dietary and cultural restrictions, as well as belief in the virtues of eliminating or focusing on certain food groups (such as beef), plus cost, convenience, and taste. Perhaps it is time to reconsider how what we eat may affect our ability to decrease anxiety, increase calmness, and help us sleep during this fraught time.

Using specific foods or nutrients to influence or improve how we feel is taken for granted by many. Walk into a health food store or supermarket specializing in organic foods, read a magazine devoted to wellness, fitness, or healthy eating, or roam the internet, and you will see endless claims about the mood benefits of almost anything you eat. 

Some recommendations, such as eating omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, nuts, seeds) or foods that act as probiotics (some yogurts, fermented foods) to relieve depression may have some effect after weeks or months (the research is still being done), but they won’t help during the next 30 minutes. However, whether depression is relieved or not, foods high in omega-3s are healthy and should be eaten anyway. Other foods that are claimed to decrease depression such as vegetables, lentils, chickpeas, beans, and whole grains are also nutrient-packed foods so your body will feel good, regardless of what happens to your mood. Chocolate is on this list and most people feel good when they eat it—because it is chocolate.

If you want to feel better quickly, as in, “How do I deal with my kids because their school is now closed,” you will find unsubstantiated claims for the mood-elevating power of specific nutrients: vitamins C, B6, and D, zinc, magnesium, folate, and selenium. According to one website, Food Revolution Network, eat blueberries, avocado, chocolate, green tea, Brazil nuts, broccoli, and quinoa to make yourself happy. Broccoli, for example, will elevate your mood because it is “rich in chromium, which can increase your body’s levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and melatonin.”

Should we up our broccoli intake to dampen the worry about becoming sick? Will eating salmon keep us from developing cabin fever when we have to avoid contact with other people? Can chickpeas or Brazil nuts decrease the stress a financial advisor I know is experiencing? He lies awake at night worrying about what to say to his clients the next morning. Or a friend who was on a cruise and now finds no one wants to see her until after she self-quarantines?

That there is little or no research information or consensus to confirm many of these recommendations appears irrelevant to those who take these recommendations seriously. If a magazine says that blueberries are good for stress, then why not eat them? Moreover, how would you know that the food or nutrient is removing or at least taking the edge off of stress or improving mood, and it’s not just a placebo effect?

One way is to do studies in which an individual’s baseline mood and stress levels are measured, and then he or she consumes the food or nutrient, such as broccoli or vitamin B6, that is supposed to improve these measurements. The stress/mood levels after the food or nutrient is digested are compared with a food or nutrient not known to have any mood-elevating effects (such as anchovies). Of course, the foods/nutrients are disguised, so the subjects do not know what they are eating.

Many years ago, following the MIT discovery that serotonin synthesis in the brain increases after the consumption of small amounts of a sweet or starchy non-fruit carbohydrate, we carried out studies comparing the effects of consuming a drink containing carbohydrates with a drink containing protein. Consuming carbohydrates elevates serotonin levels by allowing the amino acid tryptophan, out of which serotonin is made, to enter the brain. Protein consumption prevents tryptophan from getting in, and thus prevents serotonin from being synthesized, so it should have no effect on mood. 

In one such study, women whose stress levels were high because they had PMS were tested after drinking a carbohydrate- or protein-rich drink. Their moods improved significantly, but only after they consumed the drink containing carbohydrate, presumably because it increased serotonin. 

Eating carbohydrates may make the stress associated with the coronavirus crisis a little more manageable. Very little has to be eaten to increase serotonin levels: 25 or 30 grams of a starchy carbohydrate such as a crunchy breakfast cereal (Oat Squares), gluten-free matzo, a slice of chewy bread, graham crackers, or oatmeal. Quick relief can be felt when sugar is consumed because it is digested fast. In extremis, pop an Easter marshmallow bunny or two in your mouth. But don’t eat more than two; you may not want to eat them again for another year because they are so sweet. Make sure to eat the snack on a relatively empty stomach because if you eat it after consuming a meal containing protein, no serotonin will be made. Avoid snacks with more than two to three grams of fat to decrease calories and keep protein content to four grams or less.

Then wait. You will feel better in about 30 minutes.

And don’t forget to exercise. That also may help.


“Brain serotonin content: physiological dependence on plasma tryptophan levels,” Fernstrom, J.D., and Wurtman, R.J., Science, 173:149-152, 1971.

“The effect of a carbohydrate-rich beverage on mood, appetite, and cognitive function in women with premenstrual syndrome,” (Sayegh, R., Schiff, I., Wurtman, J., Spiers, P., McDermott, J., and Wurtman, R.J., Obstet. Gynecol., 86(4): 520-528, 1995.