You know that fatigue, irritability and brain fog that tends to come on around 3 p.m.? This type of afternoon slump is incredibly common, typically because the neurotransmitter serotonin becomes less active in late afternoon.
It’s about that time that you might find yourself craving a chocolate bar or a sweet iced coffee, and it’s not entirely your fault. Carbohydrates, especially those in refined foods, have gotten a bad rap as of late, but they’re actually necessary to stimulate your body’s natural production of serotonin.
Serotonin, in turn, boosts your mood while simultaneously suppressing your appetite – just what you need when facing your afternoon slump (and accompanying cravings). MIT researcher Judith Wurtman said:
“When serotonin is made and becomes active in your brain, its effect on your appetite is to make you feel full before your stomach is stuffed and stretched … Serotonin is crucial not only to control your appetite and stop you from overeating; it’s essential to keep your moods regulated.”
There’s a catch, however, and that is if you eat too much protein along with the carbs, it can prevent serotonin from being made. This might explain why people often still feel hungry, or at least not entirely satisfied, after eating a steak dinner with no potatoes or bread.
The MIT researchers actually found that your brain makes serotonin only after you eat sweet or starchy carbs – which are far from the best for your health. In terms of blood sugar control, your body needs to have a balance of protein, complex carbs and fats, even during your snacks.
However, this won’t produce enough serotonin to elevate your mood. Even the protein found in complex carbohydrates might hinder serotonin production. Further, MIT research found that if a person is craving carbs and tries to satisfy it by eating protein or fat instead, they’ll end up grumpy, irritable or lethargic. According to Wurtman:
“When you take away the carbohydrates, it’s like taking away water from someone hiking in the desert … If fat is the only alternative for a no- or low-carb dieter to consume to satiate the cravings, it’s like giving a beer to the parched hiker to relieve the thirst — temporary relief, but ultimately not effective.”
So what’s a health-conscious person to do if he or she wants to boost their serotonin production without eating a box of candy or a loaf of bread? Choose a snack with 30 grams of carbohydrates and no more than one to two grams of fat and protein. This would include a whole-wheat bagel or English muffin with a small amount of peanut butter or cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, or brown rice with mixed veggies. Eating this type of healthy snack should have your body producing serotonin in 20-30 minutes, which means you’ll likely come out of your afternoon slump shortly after.
Alternatively, you can also try 5HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan), also known as oxitriptan, which works in your brain and central nervous system by promoting the production of the chemical serotonin.