Want to relax? Bring on the carbohydrates
Some foods are thought to have the potential to aid relaxation by their effects on brain neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that are produced from nutrients in foods. The manufacture and release of certain neurotransmitters can be affected by the type of foods eaten. Diet can therefore, at least to some extent, affect behaviour although other factors such as the environment, age, gender and medication are also important. The amino acid, tryptophan, found in meat, milk and eggs, is a component of the neurotransmitter serotonin (the "feel good" neurotransmitter). Serotonin is needed for normal sleep. Hence the old advice to take a glass of warm milk to help get to sleep.
Meals that are high in carbohydrates have been shown to increase serotonin levels resulting in calmness and drowsiness. Many people erroneously believe that sugar causes hyperactivity in children when in fact sugar, as a carbohydrate, seems to have the opposite effect!
The FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Carbohydrates in Human Nutrition (1997) makes the following comment on sugar and hyperactivity; "However, an extensive review of the literature in this area concluded that there is no evidence to support the claim that refined sugar intake has any significant influence on behaviour or cognitive performance in children."
Studies looking at "seasonal affective disorder" in which people get depressed during the long dark winter months in Northern climates, suggest that lower levels of sunlight in winter decrease production of serotonin. To make up for this, people turn to "comfort foods" that are high in carbohydrates to boost serotonin levels. Findings from the studies are mixed, however, with some studies suggesting that an excess of carbohydrates can make subjects too lethargic.
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