Carbs & Anxiety: How Carbs Affect Mental Health
April 07, 2020
By Ellen Jones, MS, RD, LDN, Health & Wellness Specialist
Carbs and Anxiety
The relationship between carbohydrates and anxiety is more than just the angst one might feel after eating one too many donuts from the break room (no judgment, I know the feeling all too well!). Our brains are particularly susceptible to carbohydrate intake and the way in which we consume this nutrient. I hope to break this carbohydrate/brain relationship down for you to provide you with some knowledge and tips to best fuel your brain during this time of high anxiety.
The Science Behind Carbohydrates and Mental Health
First, I’m going to get a little “science-y,” so hang in there with me! All carbohydrates (grains, beans, dairy, fruits, starchy vegetables, and sugar) break down into glucose. Glucose is fuel for our cells. Specifically, glucose is the preferred source of fuel for the brain. If you look up the symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood glucose levels), you’ll find that many of these symptoms are brain related (irritability, lack of concentration, anxiety, insomnia). That’s because while other organs of the body can utilize protein or fats as a fuel, the brain cannot utilize these nutrients because they cannot cross the blood brain barrier (told you this was going to get “science-y”). That being said, low glucose levels leave the brain without fuel, leaving it susceptible to mood changes.
The good news is that, for most of us, our bodies do a really great job of regulating glucose levels. However, there are still a few things we can do to provide the brain with the fuel it needs to stabilize our moods as best we can.
Here's how to provide the brain with the fuel it needs to stabilize your mood and mental health:
1. Slow absorption of glucose into the bloodstream by consuming complex carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates are carbohydrates that are naturally paired with fiber. Examples include whole grains, beans, starchy vegetables and fruits. The fiber within these carbohydrates holds onto glucose within the digestive system, making it more difficult for the body to absorb glucose. Complex carbohydrates provide the brain with the glucose it needs, but in small amounts over time.
2. Pair carbohydrates with protein and/or fat to steady blood glucose levels.
Just like fiber makes glucose in complex carbohydrates more difficult for the body to absorb, so does fat and protein. Dairy is an excellent example of a natural combination of carbohydrate (lactose contains glucose), protein and fat. However, you can pair any carbohydrate with protein and/or fats at any meal or snack time to steady absorption of its glucose.
3. Consider your intake of simple carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates and carbohydrates that are easy to digest and absorb. Examples include sugar and flours made from refined grains. These carbohydrates provide the body and brain with LOTS of glucose fuel at once. Though it might seem like a good thing for the brain to receive LOTS of glucose at once, it’s not great over time. The brain gets the fuel it needs for a short amount of time. Due to the large influx of glucose into the bloodstream, the body is cued to store that glucose for later. This leaves the brain without fuel and susceptible to mood changes. This is the science behind the term “sugar crash.”
4. Listen to your body when it’s hungry.
Like I said, our bodies are good at regulating themselves, however we still must listen. Though it can be easy to ignore hunger cues when you are busy, we get hunger cues because we need fuel. You may find that when you are truly listening to your hunger cues, you need more snacks. That’s okay! Especially if those snacks include complex carbohydrates paired with a source of protein and or fat!
With the lifestyle changes we are all experiencing right now, I think it’s safe to say we are all a little more anxious than usual. Fortunately, we can try to stabilize mood changes and ease anxiety caused by low blood glucose by providing the brain with the right kind of fuel. Stay Healthy!
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