Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Does Low-Carb Stress You Out?

I came across an interesting book recently that I thought I would share with you all, because it provokes some interesting thought on how food affects our moods and why some people may have trouble maintaining certain kinds of diets.

The book is Peak Performance Living: Easy, Drug-Free Ways to Alter Your Own Brain Chemistry for Improved Productivity, Greater Energy, Sharper Thinking, Optimal Health. It's writen by Dr. Joel Robertson. Published in 1996, it's a bit of an older book, but contains some intriguing ideas.

What I really like about this book is that it doesn't treat everybody as being the same. Robertson recognizes that people respond differently to environments, food, and activity differently, depending on their personality and what they are mentally, emotionally and physically accustomed to. Robertson's theory is that people have different neurochemical persnoalities. That is, they are most comfortable when their seratonin, dopamine and other neurochemicals that slow or speed up neurotransmission are at certain levels. Some people like high levels of dopamine that make them energetic and don't like high levels of seratonin, which makes them feel sluggish. On the other hand, some people get agitated and stressed out when dopamine levels are high and prefer the ability to concentrate that high seratonin levels afford them. Robertson identifies nine neurochemical personality types and their preferred balance of neurochemicals.

Why am I talking about this in a health and fitness blog? Because, according to Robertson, the easiest way to achieve your most comfortable level of neurochemistry is through food and exercise. Here's the jist of it: proteins boost dopamine and similar chemicals, thus giving you a boost of energy and accelerating performance; meanwhile, carbohydrates boost seratonin and provide a satiated feeling and improving concentration. Moderate exercise, Robertson says, will boost dopamine and energize you, while exhaustive exercise boosts dopamine temporarily, but then exhausts it and boosts seratonin. Bottom line is if you need an energy boost, eat protein and exercise lightly, but if you want to relax or concentrate, eat carbs and exercise until you can't stand upright (my translation).

Since we live in a performance-based society and getting more things done and having more energy always seems like a good idea, it would seem that Robertson's theories would support a low-carbohydrate/hgh-protein diet. But hang on a minute. If some people actually get stressed out from high dopamine levels--and Robertson indicates this stress can get pretty severe, then a low-carb diet is likely to be unproductive for personalities that have a preference for feeling satiated and comfortable. For these people, a high-protein/low-carb diet would just put them on edge and the resulting stress would eventually impair their ability to function at an optimum level. Also, if high dopamine levels can make it hard to concentrate, then there are obviously times when having high seratonin levels and eating a few carbs are beneficial to the performance factor.

Now, I'm neither a proponent nor opponent of healthy low-carb diets. But I think that it's well worth considering that some people will have more trouble than other adapting to a low-carb/high-protein diet because of their neurochemical personality. A person who gets stressed out by high dopamine levels is going to have a difficult time with such a diet compared to somebody who loves the adrenaline rush and likes to go-go-go. Although Robertson doesn't specifically address low-carb diets, his theories seem to suggest that high-seratonin-type people, which he calls "satiation personalities", who want to lose weight should focus more and reducing fat intake and refrain from consuming excessive carbs rather than eliminating grain-based carbs altogether. And while these folks may not find exercise enjoyable, they're likely to prefer the end result of exhaustive-type exercise more than the energy boost from light exercise.

I don't mean to vouch for Robertson's credibility or suggest that his theories are the be-all end-all of neurochemistry and diet. But the individuality of a person plays a siginificant role in their ability to lose weight, build muscle and perform. So I think this idea is worth taking a look at. Robertson's book is available at if you want to take a look.


Mr. LowBodyFat said...

Interesting post John; however, I'm not too sure about carbs providing a satiating feeling for people because this goes totally against the biochemistry of the body or how the body metabolizes food. Between all the macronutrients, protein and fat have the most satiating effect because of the low insulin response to them when they're eaten. And, insulin has a lot more to do with a person's appetite than seratonin and dopamine.

John E Fike said...

Thanks for your comment. However, this post is not referring to satiation in regards to hunger. It's referring to mental/emotional satiation--the feeling of being safe and comfortable--that results from elevated levels of seratonin. According Robertson, ingestion of carbs results in seratonin production and a subsequent calming on the nervous system and the brain. I have not yet verified Robertson's claim with the biochemistry texts, but I know that carbs do tend to help me relax, where protein has something of an energizing effect.

In regards to macronutrients (carbs, proteins and fat) and insulin response. Insulin production and the cut-off of insulin production is a response to glucose levels in the blood, because insulin triggers the intake of glucose by cells. So, how can protein or fat generate any kind of insulin response? If there is a connection between fat/protein and insulin production I have not yet encountered it in the texts. I have heard the claim that fat and protein are more difficult to digest than carbs, and thus leave the stomach feeling full longer. But I have not experienced this personally; a hearty breakfast of steak and eggs lasts me about 90 minutes, but a bowl of Cream of Wheat (mostly grains and lactose with a little bit of protein) lasts me up to four hours. However, judging by Robertson's theories that different people respond differently to neurochemicals and other aspects of body chemistry, I think it's safe to say that other people would respond differently than I do to foods.

The main point here is that not everyone responds the same way mentally, emotionally, or even physically to the same diets, exercise routines or lifestyle. An individual's response has a lot to do with their personality and what they're accustomed to, and may not be an issue of discipline or restraint. Anyone that tries to live outside their comfort zone experiences genuine stress, and most of us already have too much stress in our lives. I do believe that discipline and restraint are tools that allow us to reacclimate and find comfort in different circumstances, such as changing diet, but one person will require more or less discipline than another. Though we'd like to make it so, health, weightloss and muscle building is not a one size fits all scenario. Customization and individuality are essential to success.

John E Fike said...

By the way, anyone seriously interested in understanding metabolism and the chemistry involved ought to have this book:

Metabolism at a Glance, by J.G. Salway

It's anything but an easy-reading book and if you don't have some understanding of nutrients and chemicals it will be a while before you can decipher it. However, it is a fantastic scientiffic reference on metabolism and states succinctly what the body does and does not do with food and nutrients. It's available at


Mr. LowBodyFat said...

John, I just re-read your post and comments, and see what you're saying. And, yes, insulin is released in response to glucose in the blood--thanks for the correction.

Also, when you said, "An individual's response has a lot to do with their personality and what they're accustomed to, and may not be an issue of discipline or restraint", it made me think of Gary Taubes's latest book Good Calories, Bad Calories because he argues a similar point about the possible cause of obesity.

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