Mood Swings and Low Carb Dieting

Diet trends have been going on for hundreds of years but have gained a lot of attention in the last 50 or so years. From Atkins to Weight Watchers to pills containing tapeworms (thanks, early 1900s!). With pills, potions, and dietary restrictions, there has been no shortage of diet trends to try. One of the most recent trends, however, is proving to be more harmful than originally though. The low carb diet has taken the US by storm, but is it making us all a little moody? Read on to find out more.

What is the low carb diet?

The low carb diet is exactly what it sounds like – a restriction of carbohydrates in a person’s diet. Carbohydrates are sugars that the body needs for energy. The idea behind the low carb diet is that the body will burn fat and protein instead of carbs by entering a state called ketosis. Fat and protein are generally metabolized first by the body, while carbs are stored for later use. The problem is that humans have evolved to have a more sedentary lifestyle, so we never really get around to burning those stored carbs. Instead, they just keep storing and building, turning into fat the longer they are stored. But with a low-carb diet, fat and proteins are almost the only energy type to be used up by the body, meaning that no excess carbs are stored away.

During a low carb diet, dieters stay away from processed sugars, fruits, bread, pasta, grains, and starchy vegetables like potatoes. Instead, they eat a lot of meat, cheese and dairy products, eggs, and leafy greens with low carb content.

The low carb diet can present all sorts of health problems, especially if ketosis is the goal. Nausea, fatigue, weakness, and even kidney failure can all be symptoms of not getting enough carbs. It is important to note as well that carbohydrates are necessary for brain function since the brain can only metabolize glucose for energy. Neurons can’t store glucose, though, so there needs to be a fairly steady stream of the fuel through the bloodstream. Unfortunately, glucose is a form of sugar that is, you guessed it, a carbohydrate.

Carbs and Mood

With the brain’s reliance on carbohydrates for proper functioning, we must see that there is a link between diet and mood. Several studies using lab rats have revealed that there is a strong relationship between carbs and serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is connected to happiness. It is a “feel-good” chemical that humans need. The rats in the study were put on a low carb diet for a few weeks. At the end, it was revealed that serotonin was low in each of these rats.  Indeed, for humans as well, the lower the amount of carbohydrates in the diet, the lower the serotonin in the brain. A lack of serotonin in sufficient amounts can lead to depressive states.

You may have noticed this phenomenon in a friend or loved one that has tried the low carb diet fad. Though you may have attributed any negative attitude or moodiness to simply being hungry due to not eating enough, there is a large chance that they simply weren’t eating the right foods. In fact, those that go on low carb diets tend to make up the calories in fat and protein, so hunger is an unlikely suspect. Instead, it is highly probably that they weren’t getting enough glucose to the brain, which prevented the brain from regulating and using serotonin to help with mood.

Final Thoughts

If you’re tempted to go on a low carb or no-carb diet, you may want to ease into it. By gradually decreasing your carb intake you should be able to locate the “happy medium” – a state where you feel healthy but are still getting enough carbs so that your cognition and mood don’t suffer. If you find yourself experiencing mood swings, including sporadic ups and downs, you might want to reintroduce more carbs into your diet. If you are exercising regularly and using the carbs that you do ingest, you should not experience any detrimental health issues. You know yourself and your body best, so stay in tune with it to keep it in tip-top shape.