You know the feeling. The sun has gone down and you’re winding down for the day. You had a delicious, nutrient-packed dinner. Maybe you’re relaxing on the couch watching a show, or maybe you’re getting into bed to read your book. You’re pleasantly full and getting into bedtime mode.
But something clicks in your mind and ice cream starts to sound really good. Incredible, even -- like you must have it, right now. Or maybe it’s pizza, a cookie, chips, or a croissant. Whatever it is, it’s loaded with carbohydrates.
Why is this happening? And why is it always around this time? You can get through the day just fine without any sort of carb or sweet hankering. But every night, around the same time, you get that very strong, almost innate sense of needing carbs.
Cluing Into Your Body’s Signals
There’s a biological reason for this. You’re probably familiar with melatonin, the famed hormone that lulls you into a restful night’s sleep. In order to make melatonin, though, you need serotonin. And, in order to make serotonin, you need the smallest amount of carbohydrate.
The unique construction of serotonin means its levels are largely regulated by the kind of food you eat. The more carbohydrates you eat, the more serotonin you release. The more protein you eat, the less serotonin you release.
Serotonin is made from an amino acid called tryptophan; amino acids are the building blocks of protein. When you eat a high protein meal that contains meat, fish, dairy or certain veggies, that protein source is broken down in the body into its most basic amino acid form. Some of these amino acids compete with tryptophan to enter the brain. Because there are so many aminos trying to get into the brain at once, there’s just no way all of them will make it. Some will inevitably be crowded out.
Carbohydrates, on the other hand, not only don’t compete with tryptophan, but they pave the way for it.
When you ingest carbs, insulin is secreted (naturally, for people not dependent on exogenous insulin). That insulin spike pushes amino acids out of the bloodstream and into your cells. This, in turn, reduces traffic for tryptophan, creating a highway for it to flow easily into the brain.
In short, that craving you feel for carbs is actually a craving for sleep!
You don’t need a lot of carbohydrates to get the job done. And you absolutely don’t need the kind made of refined sugar or processed carbohydrates. They absolutely feel good in the moment, but the crazy high insulin spikes they cause will send your hormones out of whack and lead to an inevitable physical and emotional crash.
Not only will your hormones be imbalanced, but you’ll disrupt the process your body was trying to achieve in the first place -- getting you into a restful sleep. Too much time on this blood sugar swing can easily lead to weight gain, mood swings, and, if you’re prone to self-medicating for difficult emotions, using food as a drug.
How to Curb the Cravings
So then, what should you reach for? A superpower, starchy vegetable. A sweet potato, paired with a fat, like butter, can be just what your body needs and wants. The starchy vegetable will provide the necessary carbohydrate while the fat will provide the satiation.
Avocados are another great option (yes, avocados have carbs!), pairing high quality carbohydrates and fat in a single dose. If you want something fast, nuts and seeds all contain tryptophan (cashews, pistachios, and almonds have the highest amount); they’ve got plenty of natural carbs and fats.
Here are a few recipes to use to curb that nighttime sweet or carb craving in a healthy, effective way:
Sweet Potato Crisp
1 sliced and roasted sweet potato (aim for about about ⅓ inch slices) with nut butter or tahini, spices*
1 avocado mashed with 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon stevia, non-dairy milk to desired consistency, spices*
Chia Seed Pudding
¼ cup chia seeds, ¾ cup water or non-dairy milk, ½ teaspoon vanilla extract, ½ teaspoon stevia, cinnamon, any kind of nut or seed topping, spices*
*For spices, nutmeg and lavender are both known to promote sleep and taste delightful, but there are also plenty of others to try!