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Depression Health Center

Craving Carbs: Is It Depression?

Many people crave carbohydrates when they feel low.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Does a bad day at the office or a tiff with your spouse send you marching to the cookie jar or the corner bakery?

Or do you find yourself at the vending machine every day precisely at 4 p.m. for some crackers or candy?

If either scenario fits, you're not alone. Many people crave carbohydrates -- especially cookies, candy, or ice cream -- when they feel upset, depressed, or tired.

"Carb craving is part of daily life," says Judith Wurtman, PhD, a former scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet.  She and her husband, MIT professor Richard J. Wurtman, have long researched carbohydrates and their link to mood and depression.

The Wurtmans published a landmark article about carbs and depression in Scientific American in 1989. They are convinced that the carbohydrate craving is related to decreases in the feel-good hormone serotonin, which is marked by a decline in mood and concentration.

Other experts aren’t so sure. Some wonder if depressed mood and reaching for carbs are both related to an external event -- such as the stock market decline -- or to simply habit.

Carbohydrate Cravings: What's Known? What's Debated?

Carb cravings seem to be related to decreases in serotonin activity, says Wurtman.

"We discovered years and years ago that many people experience the 'universal carbohydrate craving time' between 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. every day," she says. "I suspect the tradition of English tea with its carb offering is a ritual developed to fill this need."

"It's a real neurochemical phenomenon," she says. 

The Wurtmans’ work, however, has its skeptics.

Edward Abramson, PhD, a psychologist and professor emeritus at California State University, Chico, wrote the book Emotional Eating. He does not think the link is strong and clear-cut.

"You could be down because of loss of money in the stock market," he says. "The depression is triggered by an external event, not by [only] a dip in serotonin. It may be the external event causing the dip in serotonin, not the dip occurring, then the craving, he says.

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