Dr. Judith Wurtman, PhD, founder of a Harvard University hospital’s weight loss facility and much-published co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet, discovered the connection between carbohydrate craving, serotonin, and emotional well-being in the course of clinical studies at MIT. This information, first published Aug 5, 2010, is reproduced with kind permission,* from her Antidepressant Diet blog for Psychology Today.
Serotonin: What It Is and Why It’s Important for Weight Loss
Serotonin is nature’s own appetite suppressant. This powerful brain chemical curbs cravings and shuts off appetite. It makes you feel satisfied even if your stomach is not full. The result is eating less and losing weight.
A natural mood regulator, serotonin makes you feel emotionally stable, less anxious, more tranquil and even more focused and energetic.
Serotonin can be made only after sweet or starchy carbohydrates are eaten.
More than 30 years ago, extensive studies at MIT carried out by Richard Wurtman, MD, [Dr. Wurtman’s husband] showed that tryptophan, the building block of serotonin, could get into the brain only after sweet or starchy carbohydrates were eaten.
• Although tryptophan is an amino acid and found in all protein, eating protein prevents tryptophan from passing through a barrier from the blood into the brain.
• The reason is simply numbers: Tryptophan competes for an entry point into the brain with some other amino acids. There are more of those other amino acids in the blood than tryptophan after protein is eaten.
• So in the competition to get into the brain, tryptophan is at a total disadvantage and very little gets in after a protein meal like turkey or snack like yogurt.
But carbohydrates tip the odds in tryptophan’s favor. All carbohydrates (except fruit) are digested to glucose in the intestinal tract. When glucose enters the blood stream, insulin is released and pushes nutritients such as amino acids into the cells of the heart, lover and other organs. As it does this, tryptophan stays behind in the bloodstream.
Now there is more tryptophan in the blood than the competing amino acids. As the blood passes by the barrier into the brain, tryptophan can get in. The tryptophan is immediately converted to serotonin, and the soothing and appetite controlling effects of this brain chemical are soon felt.
Our studies with volunteers found that when people consumed a pre-meal carbohydrate drink that made more serotonin, they became less hungry and were able to control their calorie intake. Volunteers whose drinks contained protein – so that serotonin was not made – did not experience any decrease in their appetite.
Most of us have experienced the carbohydrate-serotonin effect on our appetite even though we were not aware of the connection.
Have you ever munched on rolls or bread while waiting for the main course to be served in a restaurant? By the time dinner is served, 20 minutes or so after you ate the roll, your appetite has been downsized. “I don’t even feel that hungry” is a common response when the plate is put down on the table.
This blunting of appetite is not because you may have eaten 120 calories of roll. It is caused by new serotonin putting a brake on your appetite. Successful weight loss depends on the power of serotonin to control food intake.
The carbohydrate-serotonin connection has a direct impact on our emotional state, too.
Drugs that increase serotonin activity have been used for several decades as a therapy for mood disorders. However, our studies showed that natural changes in serotonin could have a profound impact on daily fluctuations in mood, energy levels and attention.
In one of our early studies, we found that our volunteers became slightly depressed, anxious, tired, and irritable around 3 to 5 pm every day. At the same time, they experienced, in the words of one volunteer, “a jaw-aching need to eat something sweet or starchy.”
Several studies later, we were able to state that late afternoon seems to be a universal carbohydrate-craving time, and people who experience this craving use carbohydrates to “self-medicate” themselves. Carbohydrate cravers who consume a sweet or starchy snack are increasing serotonin naturally.
We carried out careful clinical studies to measure the effect of carbohydrates on mood and to make sure that the effect was not just due to taste or the effect of taking a break from work.
Volunteers, all carbohydrate cravers, were given a carbohydrate or protein-containing food or drink that had identical tastes. Their moods, concentration and energy were measured before and after they consumed the test beverages. The carbohydrate serotonin-producing beverage improved their moods, but the protein-containing beverage had no effect on either their mood or their appetite.
Eating carbohydrates allows serotonin to restore your good mood and increase your emotional energy.
Eating low or fat-free, protein-free carbohydrates in the correct amounts and at specific times potentiates serotonin’s ability to increase satiety. You will eat less, feel more satisfied and lose weight.
Here are five tips to get serotonin working for you:
1. Eat the carbohydrate on an empty stomach to avoid interference from protein from a previous meal or snack. Wait about 3 hours after a meal containing protein.
2. The carbohydrate food such as graham crackers or pretzels should contain between 25 to 35 grams of carbohydrate. The carbohydrate can be sweet or starchy. High-fiber carbohydrates take a long time to digest and are not recommended for a rapid improvement in mood or decrease in pre-meal appetite. Eat them as part of the daily food plan instead for their nutritional value. The protein content of the snack should not exceed 4 grams.
3. To avoid eating too many calories and slowing down digestion, avoid snacks containing more than 3 grams of fat.
4. Do not continue to eat after you have consumed the correct amount of food. It will take about 20 to 40 minutes for you to feel the effect. Eating more carbohydrates during the interval is unnecessary and may cause weight gain.
5. Stress may increase your need for serotonin and make it harder to control food intake. Prevent this by shifting protein intake to the early part of the day; i.e.,
• Protein for breakfast and lunch and switching to carbohydrates by late afternoon.
• Eating a carbohydrate dinner with very little protein increases serotonin sufficiently to prevent after dinner nibbling.
• And the soothing effect of the serotonin prevents stress from interfering with sleep.
Boost Serotonin to switch off your appetite and turn on a good mood.
* This article is reproduced with kind permission of the author (©2009-2012 Judith J Wurtman & Nina T Frustajer, MD, authors of The Serotonin Power Diet. All Rights Reserved)
Note: This information has not been evaluated by the FDA. It is general information, representing the viewpoint of Dr. Wurtman based on her research and opinions unless otherwise noted. It is not meant to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure any condition, illness or disease, and should not be taken as medical advice or to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional. It is always very important that you make no change in your healthcare plan or health support regimen without researching and discussing it in collaboration with your professional healthcare team.