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Carbs & Anxiety: How Carbs Affect Mental Health

August 31, 2022

By Sarah Craig Haverland, MS, RD, LDN Health & Wellness Specialist and Ellen Jones, MS, RD, LDN, Health & Wellness Specialist

When a new season approaches, many of us enjoy pursuing the local farmers market to see what seasonal fresh produce is available. Fall lends itself to more starchy vegetables - potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, which is especially nice as the weather gets cooler. Over the years, as the diet culture in our society has grown, carbohydrates, including starches, have been viewed as "bad." This is something we often debunk in the Learning Kitchen as there is a direct connection between carbohydrates and brain health. Carbohydrates break down into glucose which is the preferred energy source for the brain, and in turn, glucose supports the brain's overall functioning. Carbs are a necessary source of fuel for the brain.

We hope to break this carbohydrate/brain relationship down to provide you with some knowledge and tips to best fuel your brain and support your mental health.

The Science Behind Carbohydrates and Mental Health 

What is Glucose?

First, we are going to get a little “science-y,” so hang in there! 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. 

Symptoms of Hypoglycemia 

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. 

Two Types of Carbohydrates

Additionally, there are two types of carbohydrates - simple carbs (think sweets or sugary drinks) and complex carbs (including starches and fiber). While both simple and complex carbs break down into glucose, they do so at different rates. 

Simple Carbs 

Simple carbs are a shorter molecular strand and break down in the body faster, which gives the body energy but for shorter amounts of time.

Complex Carbs 

Complex carbs, a longer molecular strand, take more time to break down and give the body more sustainable, long lasting energy.

Fiber, a complex carbohydrate, also supports a healthy gut. Fiber is the food source for the "good bacteria" in our gut. Having a "healthy gut" directly correlates with our mental health, as 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut. 

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.

How to Fuel Your Brain 

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! 

So as the seasons change and you are meandering through your local grocery store, farmers market or harvesting your own produce, think about how you can incorporate this important energy source into your diet. 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!


Learn More About Nutritional Wellness


Editor’s note: This blog post is presented for informational purposes only and is not meant to diagnose or treat any illness. If you have any health concern, see a licensed healthcare professional in person.