Hangry: how your food can change your mood

Food can have such a profound affect on our bodies, but we’re now also starting to understand the affect it has on our mental and emotional states too. I’ve spent a lot of time researching this, as well as lecturing about it to the public and my patients.

Instead of trying to write a 2 hour lecture here, I want to break it down into 3 basic groups:

  1. Depression and blood sugar regulation
  2. Mood swings and carbohydrate cravings
  3. Compulsion and food addictions

And if you’d rather talk in person, don’t forget that you can always come in for a chat by clicking here.

*Please, do not consider this article to be a replacement for seeking mental help.

1. Blood sugar

We’ve all heard about blood sugar dis-regulation, the extremes well understood as it relates to diabetes. The body wants to balance its sugar for so many reasons, but the symptoms of its imbalance can often be missed.

Our blood sugar level likes to be maintained within a certain threshold, denoted below by the green hash marks. When our sugar is high, we secrete insulin to force our cells to absorb the sugar out of the blood. When the sugar is low, it triggers a response in the brain to eat, thereby consuming sugars to increase the levels again.


When we eat sugary foods, or processed carbs, our blood sugar increases quickly causing a large release of insulin. This insulin eventually causes too much sugar to be absorbed from the blood, so our levels drop too quickly. When it bottoms out, the body considers this a “stressor” and releases adrenalin and cortisol which not only helps to raise our blood sugar again (along with the appetite cues), but also has other affects like increased anxiety, emotional outbursts, etc. This creates a yo-yo affect and ultimately is a leading cause of depression symptoms.


Understand glycemic index (GI) and load (GL) – which rank foods by the rate at which they increase our blood sugar (index), and the total amount a food is going to increase our blood sugar by serving size (load). Harvard has a decent list here.

Eating more complex foods (more often lower GI foods) like a protein and vegetable, will lengthen the amount of time between meals and avoid the sugar drop. For optimal balance, I typically suggest eating a protein and veggie every 3-4 hours, which is usually 5 times a day. Its also best to try and eat more at the beginning of the day, and decreasing the amount as the day progresses.



Other natural products to help with this balance in chromium, magnesium, B vitamins, cinnamon, bitter melon, and there are many more.

Carb cravings

Another interesting dichotomy with the your blood sugar is carb cravings. A carb craving can come when your body has lower levels of serotonin (the feel good neurotransmitter in the brain). When you eat the carb, it temporarily increases your serotonin levels (by converting tryptophan in the carb into serotonin). This makes you feel good.

However, when too much insulin is secreted from eating too many carbohydrates, the blood sugar levels drop, triggering the release of cortisol, which decreases our serotonin levels again. These resultant mood swings are clearly worsened with extreme carb indulgences, but also pre-menstrually with man women.


Just as before, keeping your blood sugar balanced throughout the day can significantly help. Other treatments such as consuming foods high in tryptophan, like turkey, that don’t cause major drops in blood sugar.

Other natural products include 5HTP, Vitamin B6, avoiding caffeine, alcohol and sugar, and products to support the thyroid* and/or adrenal glands.

*Interestingly, the thyroid controls the amount of insulin released to blood sugar changes (your “metabolism”), and an under functioning thyroid, which is endemic in Southern Ontario, will exacerbate this roller coaster.


There is a pathway in the brain that is mediated by the neurotransmitter dopamine that is responsible for our feelings of reward, pleasure, euphoria and compulsion. This is the pathway that the narcotics interact with: heroin, fentanyl, morphine, etc.

It just so happens that there are certain foods that break down in our body and interact with the same receptors as dopamine, morphine and heroin – foods that make us feel good when we eat them, we feel rewarded when we eat them, and we have a compulsion to eat them again and again. These foods also happen to create a lot of inflammation and are horrible for our blood sugar levels, so we’re driven to keep eating them.

These foods are, of course, cow dairy, gluten and sugar.


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