Thanks to the work of M.I.T. professor Judith Wurtman, PhD, and others we now understand the significant role that a neurotransmitter or "chemical messenger" called serotonin plays in producing our cravings for complex carbohydrates and sugars, two of the largest contributors to unhealthy weight gain.
Serotonin and other neurotransmitters are produced by our bodies as "feel good" hormones. Under stress, we do not have enough of these hormones and we become motivated to "self-soothe" by behaviors that lead to the increase in serotonin. Overeating carbohydrates and fatty rich foods or "comfort foods" such as cookies, ice cream, and other "treats" significantly increases these hormones. Many addictions such as smoking, drinking alcohol and abusing drugs are also attempts to self soothe and increase serotonin, but no other addictive or unhealthy behavior is as socially accepted and as easily available as overeating. We can do it anywhere, anytime, alone or with company. It is no wonder we have such a love affair with eating.
In addition, the body’s need for certain nutrients, specifically protein, Vitamins A, C and E, unsaturated fatty acids, cholesterol and minerals skyrockets when we are "adapting" under stress. Often, if we do not stop the stress cycle or appropriately supplement these vital nutrients, we can turn to overeating to satisfy the body's demand for the fuel it needs to keep dealing with the stress we are experiencing.
For a period of time, foods that comfort, soothe or supplement can make us feel calmer until our level of serotonin drops again or until we become more exhausted and need to feed ourselves once more. Then we start the cycle all over and consume more carbohydrates and rich, fatty food to stabilize our blood sugar level and brain function until we feel better again.
This is the cycle of self-medication or self-soothing practiced in homes, offices, restaurants, automobiles and yes, even in bathrooms across America. The long-term effect of such behaviors, apart from obesity and escalating chronic diseases, is that our nervous systems are being hyper-stimulated. Anxiety, exhaustion, depression, overeating and insomnia are just a few of the symptoms we experience when our nervous systems are working on overload.
As a result, it is no wonder that within the last few years, low carbohydrate diets have proven effective for so many people. Approximately 20% of Americans, or 20 million people, are currently on low carbohydrate diets. For many of us, our stress level is a major factor in the over-consumption of carbohydrates; therefore reducing or eating normal amounts of carbohydrates is spawning weight loss. However, this is the real issue: How long can we reduce our carbohydrate loading without reducing our stress levels and the behaviors that create elevated stress in the first place?
For more whole health discussions like this, listen to my weekly radio show Living Above The Drama available on iHeartRadio.