Carbohydrates are digested into sugar, cause the release of insulin and are converted to fats. For simplicity, consider the actions of insulin as though it is the only hormone in your body telling your cells what to do. But remember – insulin, like all hormones, does not act alone; all the hormones of the body are connected, and they are helping each other regulate all the same biochemical reactions simultaneously.
Let us follow carbohydrates through your system to see how they affect insulin secretion. For this example, we are going to divide your body into two parts; inside and outside the body.
Breaking Down Carbohydrates into Sugar
The intestinal tract is made up of your mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (colon) and rectum. It can be thought of as being outside your body since it is in contact with the outside at both ends. It is in the digestive tract from your mouth to your small intestines that the food you eat is digested (broken down) into its smallest possible building blocks.
When you digest carbohydrates, you break them down into sugar. Sugar is small enough that it can pass from the small intestines (outside the body), through the intestinal wall and into the blood system (inside the body). This process is called absorption; therefore, the purpose of digestion is absorption.
The area of the bloodstream where sugar enters is called the portal vein. Though its name is not important, it is important for you to know that the portal vein links your small intestines directly to your liver and not to any other organs or cells. This path is a one-way highway.
Insulin and Sugar
It is at the level of the portal vein that insulin is introduced into the bloodstream proportionate to the amount of incoming sugar. The insulin and sugar travel directly to the liver where the liver cells take up sugar from the bloodstream because insulin tells the liver cells to open up their doors – or receptors – and let the sugar in.
Some people will tell you that craving foods high in sugar and carbs is different than hunger. In fact, the desire or craving for high sugar foods or carbs is hard-wired in the brain. Eating these foods creates a chemical chain reaction that leads to a temporary increase in serotonin levels. Serotonin helps you feel relaxed, less anxious & stressed and improves your mood. If you are struggling with overwhelming cravings for certain trigger foods high in sugar and carbs you may be low in the important feel good brain chemical serotonin.
Metabolically, when you eat foods high in sugar and carbs, you increase both blood sugar levels and insulin levels. You will momentarily raise your serotonin levels due to the increase of insulin but this is a short lived effect and the big swing in blood sugar levels just compounds the cravings problem, making you want more. Increased insulin levels leads to even more cravings, because it’s a ‘hungry-hormone’. And of course the increase in insulin causes increased fat storage to boot! The WORST way to raise serotonin is by reaching for sugar and carbs.
Instead of reaching for foods to raise your serotonin levels choose from the following tips that will benefit your mood and your health for the long term:
- Exercise – especially outdoors in the bright light, both the movement and the increased oxygen consumption raise serotonin levels.
- Some cravings are thirst in disguise, try drinking a large glass of water (preferably with a squeeze of lemon) and wait a few minutes to see if you’re still hungry.
- Get enough sunlight and bright light. If you find that you are craving sugar at four in the afternoon try a brisk walk in the bright sun. If it is overcast go into the brightest room in your house.
- Consume optimal amounts of protein at your 3 meals especially wild game, turkey, cheese and dairy products, whey protein, nuts and seeds.
- If you are having a sweet attack, have a small amount of dark chocolate.
- Take a good multi vitamin/mineral supplement so your body has the building blocks it needs to make its brain chemicals. Also, an increase in the amino acid glutamine improves the body’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals.
- Snack on a piece of fruit combined with a hand-full of nuts or cheese, cottage cheese, or a healthy energy bar.
- Avoid stimulants like coffee and caffeinated beverages, the artificial sweetener aspartame and alcohol-all of these can lower serotonin levels over time.
- Use Xylitol as a sweetener (instead of feeding the sugar-craving) which is a naturally produced sugar alcohol that will not sabotage your mood or energy levels the way sugar can. It is almost as sweet as sucrose, which will give you the sweet taste you want and the craving control you need. Agave nectar is also good and does not create intestinal disturbance as Xylitol may.
- Avoid or at least manage your stress-stress raises cortisol which can exacerbate sugar cravings!