We all know that feeling. The sun has gone down and you’re snuggled in bed, or maybe relaxing on the couch with a cup a tea. You aren’t hungry, but ice cream starts to sound really good. Or maybe it’s a cookie or a brownie left over from your children’s dinner; whatever it is, it’s sweet and loaded with carbohydrates!
There’s a biological reason for this. You may be familiar with melatonin, the famed sleep hormone that lulls you into a restful night. In order to make melatonin, however, you need serotonin. And, in order to make serotonin, you need a small amount of carbohydrate.
The unique construction of serotonin means its levels are largely regulated by the kind of food you eat. The more carbohydrates you eat, the more serotonin you release. The more protein you eat, the less serotonin you release.
Serotonin is made from an amino acid called tryptophan. You may recall that amino acids are the building blocks of protein. When you eat a high protein meal, containing meat, fish, dairy or certain veggies, it is broken down in the body to its component aminos.Some of these amino acids compete with tryptophan to enter the brain. Think of it as mob of people trying to get through only a few doors. Some will inevitably be crowded out.
Carbohydrates, on the other hand, not only don’t compete with tryptophan, but they pave the way for it. Insulin spikes produced by ingesting carbohydrates push amino acids out of the bloodstream and into your cells. This effectively reduces traffic for tryptophan, creating a highway for it to flow into the brain.
In short, that craving you feel for carbs is actually a craving for sleep!
You don’t need a lot of carbohydrates to get the job done, especially not those made of refined sugar or processed carbohydrates. Yes, they may feel good in the moment, but the crazy high insulin spikes they cause will send your hormones out of whack and lead to an inevitable physical and emotional crash. Too much time on this blood sugar swing can easily lead to weight gain, mood swings, and, if you’re prone to self-medicating for difficult emotions, using food as a drug.
So then, what should you reach for? I recommend a nutrient-dense starchy vegetable, like a sweet potato, paired with a fat, like butter. The starchy vegetable will provide the necessary carbohydrate while the fat will provide the satiation. Avocados are another great option, pairing high quality carbohydrates and fat in a single fruit. If you want something fast, nuts and seeds all contain tryptophan. I like cashews because they’ve got good levels of both carbohydrates and tryptophan, and … they are delicious!
Sweet potato toast: 1 sliced roasted sweet potato (aim for about about ⅓ inch slices) with nut butter or tahini, spices*
Avocado pudding: 1 avocado mashed with 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon stevia, non-dairy milk to desired consistency, spices*
Chia seed pudding: ¼ cup chia seeds, ¾ cup water or non-dairy milk, ½ teaspoon vanilla extract, ½ teaspoon stevia, cinnamon, berries, any kind of nut or seed topping, spices*
*For spices, I suggest playing with nutmeg and lavender, both of which have been known to promote sleep.
P.S. If you need more of a serotonin boost, you can take the amino acid, tryptophan (500-1000 mg) or it’s downstream metabolite, 5-HTP (50-100 mg or more) which crosses into the brain more easily. There it is converted to the neurotransmitter, serotonin, and then, at bedtime and during sleep, some of it goes on to make melatonin, the hormone to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. In general, serotonin raises your mood, calms you down, and curbs sugar cravings and night-time eating. For more information on 5 HTP, click here.