It’s winter and there’s a chill in the air. Out come the sweaters and scarves and fuzzy socks. Hot tea and cocoa become routine as we begin to crave comfort foods and good books on a blustery day. It’s about this time of year many of us find ourselves craving warm pumpkin bread or pasta dishes. They taste good and are so filling, making us feel full, happy, and content. Why is that? Why do our brains and bodies respond so positively to breads and pasta? It may not come as a surprise, but there is a scientific explanation and it involves the release of neurotransmitters, hormones, and even changes in the weather, all of which have an effect on our food choices.
Psychobiology is the branch of science that focuses on the relationship between the mind and the body, and how that relationship affects behavior. Food has a major impact on how we feel, and eating something high in carbohydrates has an immediate effect on our mood. Serotonin, the feel good neurotransmitter, is normally controlled by food intake, specifically carbohydrate consumption. Serotonin release is involved in so many of our body’s functions, from sleep onset to blood pressure regulation, it’s no surprise we tend to overeat carbs to feel better. In some cases, the need to feel better turns into a drug-like dependence on eating carbohydrate-rich foods, like pasta and bread.
A second factor driving these cravings for carbohydrates is hormones, particularly for women. All of that white sugar – sucrose – in the simple carbs we eat releases insulin. Once sugar is broken down into fructose and glucose through digestion, insulin’s job is to transport glucose to be used immediately as energy. The effect of glucose keeps us addicted to all varieties of sugar, especially processed and refined snacks. For women, hormonal fluctuations can influence both hunger and eating behavior. During the time between ovulation, when she releases an egg, and menstruation, a woman generally feels more tired and craves foods that can be immediately turned into energy, like breads, sweets, and pastas. When she eats these foods, her energy spikes and she gets a dose of the feel-good effects of serotonin. So it’s a win-win situation for the brain and body.
Cortisol is another hormone that creates cravings for food. Cortisol is our body’s primary stress hormone. Not only does it help us in the face of danger; but it also helps to regulate blood sugar, arouse us from sleep in the morning, and helps the body use macronutrients, which are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Today, our stressors do not involve running for our lives on a regular basis as our primal ancestors once did. But the body does not know that difference. Stress is stress. Whether we’re late for a meeting, taking an exam, or breaking up with a significant other, stress is the result and cortisol is released. This release uses up available glucose, so the body naturally craves more. Constant stress equals constant craving for sugar-rich foods, again, releasing lots of feel-good serotonin.
Lastly, we have winter depression also called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is characterized by mood fluctuations that occur with the onset of winter. Less light, colder weather, and gray, depressing days can lead to sleep changes, moodiness, fatigue, and appetite changes. During the winter, we are exposed to higher calorie meals because of the holidays, but we also get less exposure to the sun. Lack of sunlight decreases outdoor activity and can leave us feeling moody and lethargic. This grumpy and depressed mood is temporarily lifted when carbohydrates are added to meals and snacks. Again, that release of serotonin helps to feel better.
A lot of this eating behavior occurs without our being conscious of it. We eat what we crave, and there are many fast and easy choices on every block to meet that demand for a carb fix. Sometimes, the quick pick-me-up is necessary to help push through the day. But over time, it can create terrible eating habits that lead to obesity and sugar addiction. So, we should try other ways to boost mood and energy. Simple exercise like walking with a friend or time spent watching something funny can really elevate our mood. And when we feel better, everything is better.
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