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Carb Up, Stress Down

There’s a powerful link between food and stress. After studying the effects of diet on mood for 15 years, Judith Wurtman of M.I.T. concludes that a mid afternoon snack of a carbohydrate-rich food such as pretzels or popcorn will ward off tension as well as hunger.

Carbohydrates set off a series of biochemical events that produce serotonin, the chemical that controls the brains stress-management system. Serotonin makes us feel calm and in control when events beyond our control threaten us, says Wurtman, a research biochemist and co-author of “The Serotonin Solution.”

To trigger serotonins effects, you have to work with your brain, she explains. There’s a rhythm to your serotonin level: it’s naturally high in the morning, so you don’t need a lot of carbohydrates for breakfast. But at 4p.m. and 4a.m., there’s a detriment that needs fixing. The effects of serotonin, she says, start 30 minutes after eating and last for three hours.

We’ve summarized Wurtman’s stress-management diet. Amounts are for women; men might need slightly more calories from fruits and vegetables (stress-neutral foods). Note that the real stress reduction comes with the afternoon snack and dinner, when you’ll need it most.

Coordinates: Judith Wurtman, judy@crc.mit.edu; “The Serotonin Solution” (Fawcett Columbine, 1996), $24

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