‘Carb Cravings’, Genes and ‘The Tryptophan Steal’sarapugh
‘Carb Cravings’, Genes and ‘The Tryptophan Steal’. Are You To Blame for Binge Eating?
Hello and welcome to my blog.
So many people get accused of having no will power or even feel like they have no will power when it comes to carbs and sugary snacks. What is the deal here? Is it your mind? Your biochemistry? Or your genes?. What can you do?
Lets get started with some biochemistry! I’ve put my degree certificate at the end of the blog, so that you know I’m not just some random person telling you about biochemistry and genetics.
There is an amino acid called tryptophan which your body uses to make serotonin via several chemical reactions. Tryptophan can be found in protein like turkey, but also in carbohydrate rich foods, it is much easier to absorb from the high carb foods. Insulin is needed to get tryptophan to go into the brain, and carbs will create an insulin spike, allowing the tryptophan to cross the blood brain barrier, like opening a gate. Serotonin is a brain chemical that makes you feel content, happy, confident grateful and at peace, when it is present in the right amount in your brain.
Serotonin is made into melatonin in the brain. Melatonin is a neuro transmitter you need to go to sleep. Too much blue light from computer, phone or tablet screen as well as caffeine inhibits melatonin production, making it harder to sleep. Melatonin also polices other hormones in the body while you are sleeping, meaning you need adequate levels to be healthy. Lack of restful sleep is now considered one of the 1# stressors and has been liked to obesity, depression, cardio vascular disease, diabetes and weak immune system.
What does this have to do with carb binges or addictions?
Stress (of any kind) causes our body to stop using our supply of tryptophan for making the ‘feel-good’ serotonin and give it to the other cells instead, so they can survive. This is called ‘The tryptophan steal’. This means the brain’s supply of tryptophan is ‘stolen’ when we are under pressure and serotonin levels drop, and this one reason why we crave carbs when we are stressed.
Why do some people binge and others not?
This in part comes down to genetics and there are lots of genes involved in mood and eating, and all the genes interact with each other. However, there is one particular gene which does play a big role in carb binges and I will tell you about it after ‘Genetics 101’.
Humans have 2 copies or alleles of each gene and you get one from your dad and one from your mum. Genes encode sets of instructions on how to make proteins, proteins are like molecular machines and have either one job or lots of jobs in the body. Genes are made up of DNA, which is a biological information storage mechanism for instructions on how to make proteins which are ‘molecular machines’ that run the biochemical processes in your body.
Computers have sets of instructions stored in them and are programmed to ‘do something’ like open a file or send an email. As we know even though the instructions are there, the computer doesn’t always do what we want. Like computer programs, genes can be inherited with ‘problems’ but also genes can accumulate problems thought life, which is called epi genetics and is dependent on something called methylation. You have lots of control over your gene methylation patterns by the lifestyle choices you make. Your genes are NOT your destiny.
The chemical process of methylation is key to life. Efficient methylation is needed to make and break down brain chemicals, remove toxins and hormones and control genes.
Methylation is where a methyl group (a carbon and 3 hydrogens CH3) is added to a molecule like a tag. These methyl groups control genes, so they can be on or off, like lights in your house. Sometimes the lights or genes supposed to be on, sometimes they are supposed to be off. People with MTHFR gene SNPs can have trouble with their methylation cycle.
Even if you have ‘bad genetics’ for weight management, AKA Fat Genes it doesn’t mean you will be obese. If your body can efficiently methylate your genes then the ‘bad’ genes can be silenced so they aren’t ‘listened to’ as much by the body.
Our genes also have variants or mutations which scientist call Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). Mutations sound a bit alarming to non-scientists. SNPs or ‘mutations ‘, evolved or emerged so that humans could adapt to the many different environments and food sources here on earth. Now we have moved around so much, many people do not live or eat appropriately for their genetics, simply because they have no idea about SNPs and lifestyle.
Mono amine oxidase A (MAO A)
Monoamine oxidase A (MAO A) gene makes the MAO A enzyme, which is a ‘molecular machine’. This enzyme breaks down key brain chemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. These chemicals affect mood, energy, confidence, sleep, addictions and motivation. Some older types of antidepressants were MAO inhibitors, but they aren’t used so much now. Those were the ones that caused the ‘cheese reaction’ if patients ate food containing lots of tyramine.
The MAO A gene is something to consider for people who have carbohydrate and sugar cravings as well as those people who feel dreadful until they have some carbs or sugars. You can manage your bad genes!
There are SLOW and FAST MAO A variants and these are reasonably common. The FAST MAO A variant is more relevant to ’carb cravings’ as these people burn through their serotonin very quickly, meaning they can suddenly feel like they fall into a doom and gloom and get horrendous cravings for carbs/sugar. These people also wake up in the night and feel like they need a snack to ‘find peace’ in order to get back to sleep. The SLOW variant means serotonin can raise too high and make people irritated, agitated and take ages to calm down if they have been upset or angered.
Dr Ben Lynch has a wealth of information on this topic in his book ‘Dirty Genes’.
Why do these carb cravings happen?
People with FAST MAO A have learned that a carb binge is what is needed to ‘feel normal again’ as the binge raises serotonin Carb binges leads to weight gain over time, as we know.
What can be done?
- Riboflavin (vitamin B 2) and tryptophan are key nutrients needed to make serotonin, so seek out foods which contain plenty of both. Pumpkin seeds and turkey are examples of foods with lots of tryptophan. Meat, almonds and eggs contain vitamin B2. There are many other high tryptophan and B2 foods, which I have not listed.
- Ensure that some protein is eaten with every meal particularly breakfast.
- Avoid carbohydrate only meals and if you must have a snack then choose something like turkey, humus, pumpkin seeds and avoid sweet snacks.
- Sometimes a 5-HTP (-5 Hydroxy Tryptophan) supplement can help. This is pre-cursor to serotonin.
- Learn what your ‘stressors’ are. These can be certain foods, chemicals, pesticides, people, overtraining.
I will write a blog soon on ‘The Methylation Cycle’ and how to keep yours healthy as this is a way to help control ‘naughty genes’.
To know about your genes and your SNPs you need DNA sequencing data from somewhere like 23&Me. If you have data I can help you with SOME lifestyle and wellbeing genes, please get in touch. The fee is a donation as it takes me time to go through your data and I won’t do it properly if I’m not paid, as I will give 100% of my attention to the next paying customer.
Thank you for reading !
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