Carbohydrates + Anxiety: what type, how much + when to eat carbs to support mental health
Embrace a balanced relationship with carbs to help you calm anxiety and balance your stress hormones.
Are you scared to eat carbs? With the increased popularity of low carb and keto diets, more and more people feel absolutely terrified or completely confused about eating carbohydrates.
While these diets may be helpful for some people, they are definitely not for everyone. Finding a balance with carbohydrates is one the most important things you can do to support your physical health, but also your mental health, especially if you have anxiety, chronic stress, and depression.
Recommended Reading: Omega-3 Fats + Depression
So, how can use carbohydrates to support your mental health? Keep reading to learn more about what types, how much, and when to eat carbs to balance your stress hormones.
Carbohydrates + Anxiety: what type, how much, and when to eat carbs to support mental health
UNDERSTANDING THE STRESS RESPONSE
First let’s start with a basic understanding of the body’s stress response. The stress response is a complex group of hormones and neurotransmitters that are controlled by the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis connects the nervous system with the endocrine system to regulate stress hormone production.
Acute stressors like running from a life threatening situation, and chronic stressors like worry and fear both activate the HPA axis, and trigger the release of stress hormones and neurotransmitters like norepinephrine (noradrenaline), epinephrine (adrenaline), and cortisol.
These neurotransmitters and hormones produce physiological changes in the body that are commonly known as the fight-or-flight response.
During fight-or-flight our heartbeat, blood pressure and pulse rate increase to get more blood to the muscles, brain, and vital organs. Breathing becomes more rapid and the airways in our lungs open allowing us to take up as much oxygen as possible to send to our brain and muscles. Blood sugar (glucose) and fats also flood into the blood stream, supplying energy to our tissues. As a result, our senses become sharper and we are more alert when the stress response is activated.
These physiological changes occur so quickly that we are often unaware they are even happening. This helps us to respond to danger almost without thinking.
The stress response was adapted to help us survive life threatening situations, but as I mentioned earlier, it can also be activated by chronic, non-life threatening stressors like sleep deprivation, traffic, a stressful boss, and even Instagram!
In these situations, the stress response is doing more harm than good. Chronic, low-grade stress can contribute to anxiety, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disease, weight gain and more.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND CARBOHYDRATES + STRESS
So how do carbohydrates impact the stress response?
Glucose is the breakdown product of carbohydrates and also the body’s primary fuel source. The body works really hard to maintain a steady level of glucose in the blood so that we have enough energy to fuel metabolism and and balance our hormones.
When our blood sugar gets too low it triggers the stress response, hunger is a potentially life threatening situation after all. The stress response helps mobilize glucose from the liver and muscles, bringing blood sugar levels back to normal.
So, having too many processed carbohydrates and sweets can throw off your blood sugar by causing a drastic increase in blood sugar, followed by an equally drastic drop in blood sugar. This big drop in blood sugar triggers the stress response, resulting in the physiological symptoms of anxiety mentioned earlier, and even panic attacks for some people.
Low carb diets, especially low carb and low fat diets can also trigger the stress response because the body isn’t as efficient at getting energy from protein and fat as it is from carbohydrates. This is why many people, especially women who naturally have more cortisol than men, feel anxious and wired and/or hit a weight loss plateau on low carb diets.
The body is increasing cortisol because it doesn’t have enough glucose to support metabolic functions, resulting in anxiety.
WHAT ARE THE BEST TYPES OF CARBS TO EAT FOR STRESS MANAGEMENT?
Which carbs are good? Which carbs are bad? Labeling foods as good or bad is a slippery slope to disordered eating so I prefer to address this topic from the perspective of balance and personalized medicine.
When it comes to eating the right types of carb for your body, it takes some experimentation and mindfulness to figure out a balance that supports you mentally and physically.
If you have anxiety, burn out, and/or chronic stress it’s important to be mindful of the types of carbs you are eating, especially in the context of the other macronutrients - protein and fat.
It’s time to start embracing carbohydrates and learning how to use them to support your stress hormones and calm anxiety.
First, let’s talk about the best carbs to eat to keep your blood sugar steady.
Whole, minimally processed, complex carbohydrates take the longest to digest and therefore produces a steady stream of glucose to support balanced blood sugar levels. As you now know, this is key for managing anxiety because it calms the stress response.
The foods listed below should be the main source of carbohydrates in your diet.
Black or Wild Rice
As I mentioned earlier, highly processed and refined carbohydrates and sweets cause high and low blood sugar, which can trigger the stress response.
These foods can definitely be incorporated as part of a healthy diet, but should not make up the main source of carbohydrates your consume. It’s especially important to have refined carbs and sweets with other foods, particularly protein and/or fat, to help slow their absorption and minimize their impact on your stress hormones.
HOW MANY CARBS SHOULD YOU EAT?
Next, it’s important to consider the right amount of carbohydrates for your body to calm the stress response and manage anxiety. Our needs for carbohydrates vary, especially between men and women, and depending on your physical activity level, your gut microbiome, and if you have a medical condition like hypothyroidism or type 2 diabetes among other factors.
I typically recommend anywhere from 1/4 cup to 1 cup of cooked legumes, whole grains, or starchy root vegetables with each meal to manage anxiety, stress, and even depression.
If you want to get specific, try aiming for about 15 - 30% of your total calories from complex carbohydrates. You don’t have to count calories or track macros to find the right amount of carbs for your body, but if you like that stuff, start with about 20% of your calories from carbohydrates and adjust up or down to find the right balance for you.
Women may need to increase your carb intake a week or so before menstruating and definitely during pregnancy and lactation. Both men and women should increase carbohydrates on days where you are more physically active.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO EAT CARBS?
So, when is the best time to eat carbs to support your mental health?
As you now know, eating carbs lowers cortisol, which helps us feel calm and relaxed. Because of this effect, it can be really beneficial to have the bulk of your carbohydrate intake toward the end of the day, especially with dinner.
Studies have even found that eating carbs at night can help treat insomnia.
You can also have a serving (see recommendations above for serving size suggestions) of carbohydrates throughout the day, just make sure you pair them with a good source of protein, especially during breakfast.
Eating something every 2 - 4 hours will also help prevent your blood sugar from dipping too low. Just make sure meals and snacks always have a source of protein and fat, and not just carbohydrates alone.
If you have anxiety or experience chronic stress, you will be more sensitive to the effects of processed carbohydrates and sweets, and also low carbohydrate diets. Try having a moderate amount of whole food, minimally processed carbohydrates with each meal to steady your blood sugar and calm your stress response.
What are your experiences with carbohydrates and anxiety? Share them in the comment section.
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