Why You Self-Medicate With Carbs and Sugar During Depression

Woman sitting on couch eating chocolates

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Do you find that you crave carbs, sugar, and chocolate when you are depressed? It's not unusual to find these foods irresistible when you're feeling down. But why does that happen? This article explains the science behind mood-related carb cravings and the connection between food and mood.

The Serotonin Theory

One theory about carb cravings is that people may be eating them in order to trigger the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood regulation. In other words, eating sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods may be a way of self-medicating depression.

Certain studies seem to back up this idea. It has been found that a meal high in carbs tends to raise serotonin, but a meal high in protein or fat may actually lower it. Also, this effect might be stronger in foods with a high glycemic index, such as candy, which causes a higher peak in blood sugar levels. 

The Role of Tryptophan

Tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin (meaning, your body needs it to produce serotonin). It's been proposed that foods high in tryptophan can promote a positive mood, while not having enough tryptophan can depress your mood.

Tryptophan is often found in protein-rich foods, such as seafood, eggs, and poultry.

Chocolate Cravings

It's not just sugar that we crave. There's chocolate. Certain alkaloids have been isolated in chocolate that may raise brain serotonin levels. Scientists now speculate that "chocoholism" may actually have a real biological basis with a serotonin deficiency being one factor.

Chocolate also contains 'drug-like' constituents including anandamides, caffeine, and phenylethylamine, which exert a powerful influence on mood. So, when people claim to be addicted to chocolate, it could well be that the one-two punch of chocolate plus sugar is satisfying their need for more serotonin.

How to Cope with Food Cravings

When stress or sadness strikes, your first impulse may be to pick up a cookie or piece of candy to help you cope. But overindulging in sweets can lead to weight gain, guilt, and further depressed feelings. What can you do to cope with these urges? Here are a few tips from the experts:

  • Be honest with yourself about how deep your problems with food go. If overeating has become a way of life you may have an eating disorder that requires professional assistance to overcome.
  • Certain medications can stimulate appetite or blood sugar problems, including those for the treatment of depression and bipolar disorder. Other drugs, both prescription and over the counter, may influence appetite as well. Discuss with your doctor or pharmacist whether any of your current medications may be affecting your appetite for sweets. You may be able to find an alternative that doesn't send your cravings out of control.
  • Become aware of your emotional triggers for eating. The next time you pick up a "comfort food" ask yourself why you are eating it. Bored? Do something you enjoy other than eating. Feeling neglected? Pamper yourself with a bubble bath or a good book.
  • Distract yourself by doing something else. Chances are the craving will pass.
  • Exercise. Exercise stimulates the feel-better chemicals called endorphins and improves your mood.
  • Drink a glass of water. Sometimes our body mistakes the feeling of dehydration for hunger.
  • If you're hungry, eat, but eat well. Sugar cravings are the strongest when you are hungry. Eat good foods with a promise to yourself that if you want it you may have a dessert after your meal. Chances are you won't even want it once your hunger is satisfied.
  • If you slip, don't beat yourself up over it. You're a work in progress. Mistakes will happen. Dust yourself off and keep trying.
  • Don't completely deprive yourself. Find healthier substitutes for what you're craving. Try eating a sugar-free chocolate pudding instead of that large chocolate bar. Or allow yourself a small portion of the dessert that you really want. No food is totally bad. It's the quantity and frequency that count.
  • Eat intentionally, rather than mindlessly grazing all day. Keeping a food journal can help.
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