Weight loss is certainly not ‘all in the mind’. What you eat has a large amount to do with how much weight you can lose and how quickly you can lose it. And the same is also true for exercise. No matter how positive or negative you are, you’ll get into much better shape much faster if you spend some time working out at the gym.
But with all that said, the mind does also play a role in the way you train and it actually goes deeper than that too. The connection between your mood, your hunger, your thoughts and your diet is much stronger than you may have realized…
How Serotonin Regulates Hunger and Mood
Serotonin is often described as the ‘feel good hormone’ and is associated with feelings of well-being and happiness. Generally, we think of serotonin as being responsible for our pleasant moods and think of it as a neurotransmitter that has a role in a number of psychological conditions. Low serotonin for instance is correlated with depression.
What you may not have known though, is that serotonin is also crucial for our regulation of hunger and plays a key role in our satiety.
Like ghrelin, serotonin is a hormone that tells the brain that we’re full and that we don’t need to eat any more. This occurs partly through our consumption of carbohydrates, most of which will contain some amount of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid and is also found in protein but there’s only a small amount of it in most foods compared with other amino acids, which prevents it from having any major effect.
When you eat lots of carbohydrates then, you actually flood the bloodstream with tryptophan and this then remains in the blood once the insulin kicks in and you start absorbing the nutrients.
This then leads to a surplus of tryptophan which reaches the brain and guess what happens then? It turns into serotonin! This happens because tryptophan is actually a precursor to serotonin and one of the key building blocks used to create it.
All this explains why you tend to feel in a very good mood when you’ve just eaten and why your mood can plummet when you start to get low in blood sugar. This is where ‘hangry’ comes from!
What to Do With This Information
If you’re a low-carber, then you may find this news a little alarming – are you still going to get those signals that you’re full? The good news is that this is actually just one of several mechanisms that the body uses to tell how full it is. Leptin for instance is another hormone that is produced in the gut and which tells the brain to stop eating too.
But it is also true that you’ll be missing out on at least one signal of fullness if you go overly low carb, so keep this in mind. It’s always better to use a complex carb diet rather than one that completely eradicates this whole food group from the diet.
And presuming that you haven’t sworn off carbs, there are actually some ways you can use this information strategically in order to stave off hunger pangs and better control your urge to raid the fridge.
The trick is simply to eat a small amount of carbohydrates when you feel very hungry and to use this to tide yourself over. You may have noticed this working if you’ve ever accidentally filled yourself up on rolls at a restaurant before your dinner came. It’s actually quite unlikely that a few rolls were enough to completely fill up but the fact that they raised your serotonin levels meant that your hunger was satiated nonetheless.
It’s also worth seeking out foods that can further elevate your serotonin levels. Good examples are anything high in vitamin C and B6 which both encourage serotonin production in the brain, as well as any proteins that contain tryptophan. Turkey is often considered to be a good source of tryptophan for instance.
Thinking Yourself Thinner?
What’s also interesting to note is that many antidepressants work by controlling levels of serotonin and thus might be able to act as appetite suppressors as well. There are also over-the-counter products that you can get that work in a similar manner, such as 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) which is a precursor to serotonin once removed. While these are used by many to treat depression and anxiety, it’s actually not recommended as a long-term solution for either of those things or weight loss. Apart from anything else, manipulating your levels of serotonin will always result in changes to other neurotransmitters. Increase serotonin for instance and you’ll actually decrease the amount of dopamine in your brain. Once dopamine levels get low enough, 5-HTP stops helping the situation and actually starts to exacerbate it (1).
Finally, what this all also means is that you can affect your hunger by changing your mood and the way you think. We tend to comfort eat when we’re sad and now we know why! If you’re feeling low, then recognize that eating is only a short-term fix at best and try to find other ways to improve your mood. Exercise is also a great natural antidepressant, while therapy may be an option for longer-term struggles.