Soothing Stress With The Afternoon Munchies

popcorn, snack, bowl

Some of us may feel like we’ve lost a sense of time under quarantine, but our bodies have not. Our biological clocks continue ticking, letting us know, with the assistance of the hunger hormone ghrelin, that we should be sure to eat a few times during the day. Our biological clocks also advise us with the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, which makes us feel tired enough to go to sleep. 

Late Afternoon Munchies Serve A Purpose

Some of us receive another message from our internal clocks: the urge to snack in the afternoon. During the darker months of the year, the need to munch on something often happens anytime from 3-5 p.m. and may appear closer to five o’clock during the late spring and summer. This need to put something in one’s mouth is accompanied by a real but subtle change in mood: a decrease in contentment, focus, patience, calmness, and even mental energy. A friend once described it as, “…late afternoon grumpiness.”

Craving Sweet & Starchy Carbs

These mood shifts are often accompanied by a desire to eat something sweet or starchy, but surprisingly, the urge to eat is not driven by actual hunger. However, this craving was specifically for a starchy or sweet carb. Different foods, such as fruit, yogurt, even a slice of cheese, did not appeal to her at all when she experienced a 4pm craving. 

Carb Craving For Serotonin Boost? 

Years ago, while carrying out a study about why people who consider themselves carb cravers had trouble resisting their cravings to eat these foods, we discovered this late afternoon urge to eat. We assumed, at that point, that people might have felt an urge to eat carbs in response to a signal in the brain involving serotonin. Earlier research had shown that serotonin synthesis occurred only after the amino acid tryptophan entered the brain. This took place only after carbohydrate, but not protein, was consumed. We wondered whether it was possible that when serotonin needed to be increased, some actually felt the need to eat carbs.

Is Snack Accessibility A Factor?

Yet others suggested a simpler reason: When people have the urge to snack, they eat carbohydrates because they’re easy to access. They theorized that if chicken wings, cheese, or yogurt were more readily available, those protein foods would be eaten instead. It sounded reasonable, except it turned out not to be true. 

People Crave Carbs 

We know this because we carried out a study in which volunteers could decide which snacks to consume – protein or carbs – at any time during the day or evening. Both protein and carb snacks were equally available and contained the same calories. What we discovered is that no one ate the protein – and everyone ate the carbs. 

Carb Snacking For Mood 

We also discovered that our volunteers tended to snack only in the late afternoon or mid-evening. Our volunteers shared that in the late afternoon they would feel grumpy, have difficulty concentrating, and felt mentally fatigued, depressed, and irritable. All of these were signs of lower serotonin activity. After they enjoyed a snack, they told us, the negative moods disappeared.

Protein Snacks Don’t Boost Mood 

We wondered if the mood changes were an indirect signal to consume carbs. Later studies confirmed a link between changes in serotonin activity and mood changes, and found that individuals who considered themselves as carb snackers showed a significant improvement in mood after they consumed a drink containing carbohydrate, but not after consuming a protein drink.

Challenging Times Call For Effective Measures 

Many are experiencing stress, worry, and boredom at greater heights than usual, under quarantine. Naturally, we can expect the normally small deterioration of mood in the afternoon to intensify. Just the thought of preparing dinner, once again, may contribute to our grumpiness and our inability to manage even minor annoyances in the late afternoon.  

The Answer: A Carb Snack To Boost Serotonin

The great news is that it takes only a small amount of carbs to help with the 4pm blues. Eating about 25-30 grams of a starchy carbs, like breakfast cereal without milk, will increase serotonin synthesis in about 30 minutes, and an elevation of mood should follow soon thereafter. 

We All Need Carbs Right Now

Carbohydrates have mistakenly been painted as something to avoid because they supposedly will cause weight gain, and prevent weight loss. What those who promote carbohydrate-free or low-carbohydrate diets fail to mention is that serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates our mood and causes us to feel satiated after eating, is not made unless carbohydrates are consumed. Risking a decrease in serotonin seems too high a price to pay during this often extremely stressful period. So grab a carb snack – and thank yourself for practicing self care.


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