Most of us have experienced the typical three o’clock slump. You are sitting in the office feeling irritated, moody and tired whilst staring at the biscuit tin in hope of salvation. You know that this tempting piece of sugary heaven does not do you any favours, but just the thought of a buttery chocolate high seems to make those lonely afternoon hours a little more bearable.
The same rule applies to the ‘mid morning madness’. You‘ve just dropped the kids at school, you’ve done the shopping and you’ve walked the dog. You haven’t even noticed that not so much as a mere morsel has passed your lips and, as anxiousness and irritability are rearing their ugly heads, by nightfall you are plagued by anxiety and restlessness. Sound familiar?
If you described situations like these to your GP, most of us would walk away with a goody bag of antidepressants. Extensive research has shown that these types of drugs only bring limited benefit and the side effects often largely outweigh any positive effects. Looking at alternatives, you might have come across 5 HTP – a form of mood-enhancing tryptophan – and a herbal remedy called St John’s Wort. Magnesium, B vitamins and fish oils are also often recommended for mental health and certain combinations have shown very promising effects. But before delving into the science of individual nutrients and their biochemical activity, it’s important not to miss the simplest and most straightforward steps you can take to manage your mood.
Balancing blood sugar levels, controlling sugar intake and thereby regulating the release of insulin and glucagon will quite likely improve your symptoms in a matter of days. Mood swings, irritability and anxiety can have many causes, but whether your daily ups and downs are due to hormonal imbalance, excessive stress or skipping breakfast, controlling your blood sugar levels is the firm foundation of a happy and relaxed mind.
All neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, are produced from amino acids in the foods we eat. Serotonin is regarded as the most famous of the ‘happy hormone ‘ bunch, but it’s thanks to dopamine that we experience pleasure, alertness, concentration, creativity, drive and clear thinking. Chocolate has been shown to raise serotonin levels but also increase dopamine production, triggering our pleasure and reward centres in much the same way as certain illegal drugs do. But chocolate has another trick up its smooth and silky sleeve….it contains lots of sugar!
Sugar triggers a release of insulin, a hormone which mops up sugar molecules and escorts them out of the blood stream and into the cells. The more sugar that’s circulating around your body (think a bar of Double Caramel Galaxy), the more insulin your body needs to produce. A peak of insulin secretion is followed by a steep drop in blood sugar, which often leads to cake and biscuit binges and a very snappy, irritable YOU. Insulin is not only in control of sugar concentrations in the blood, high levels also encourage clearance of all amino acids except one, tryptophan. If a lot of tryptophan is available, your body will make a lot of serotonin, which is not necessarily a good thing. Symptoms of high serotonin levels include nervous tension, confusion, drowsiness, low mood, lack of will power and poor appetite control. When looking at the science, it becomes clear that poor blood sugar control coupled with high serotonin levels spells disaster! A constant release of serotonin can deplete levels in the long term and lead to an increased rate of depression in diabetics.
A state of low blood sugar is perceived by the body as acute stress. It presents an emergency situation and your brain will send signals to your adrenal glands to release adrenaline. Adrenaline has the ability to release sugar out of glycogen storage pockets to supply you with more energy. Ever heard of a mother displaying near super human strength while lifting a car to save her baby? That is a prime example of just how powerful adrenalin can be, but there are side effects when levels are elevated. Excessive amounts of this stress hormone surging through your body will often result in hunger pangs, anxiety, tension, headaches and aggressive behaviour. A combination of low blood sugar levels and high adrenaline is even associated with alcoholism and some psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.
It may seem like you are trapped in a vicious circle of mood swings, sugar highs and serotonin lows but a possible solution to the problem is literally presenting itself on a plate. The most important step you can take to balance your blood sugar levels is to include a portion of good quality protein with every meal. That might include eggs, goat’s cheese, chicken, fish or lean beef – the choice is yours. Protein will slow down the rate of sugar released from carbohydrates, preventing insulin spikes and keeping you fuller – and happier – for longer. A good serving of amino acids from these protein foods will also supply the body with essential building blocks for all neurotransmitters including dopamine, acetylcholine and GABA, which all exert calming and pleasurable effects. In practice this translates into porridge with nuts and seeds, brown rice with green leaves and chicken, apple wedges smothered in peanut butter or carrot sticks with a generous helping of hummus. If you get this simple step right, you will be able to enjoy the occasional sweet treat without the threat of panic attacks, tension headaches or dangerous road rage. Surely that’s good for all of us.