From any reasonable perspective, December thirty-first and January first aren’t really much different at all. Sunrise and sunset times between the two days differ by just a few moments, and the transition from 11:59:59 to 12:00:01 are an identical two seconds to any other two seconds ticking away at any other time of the year, and yet, for all that…
January first is lauded, looked upon like a rebirth of possibilities, a cause for celebration as all new life is such a cause. Few lament the passing of the old year – years’ ends are nothing to mourn – yet fewer still escape the feeling of joy that the New Year engenders. Promises from oneself to oneself are made, as the vision of a better tomorrow or an improved “me” living in that tomorrow is imagined. Such potential is breathtaking! Still, the day does come when the resolutions begin to take hold, when the weight-loss diet is begun, or the brighter, cheerier persona is now all smiles and will be so for the remainder of the year. The question is, “How does one manage to feel good in the midst of all that reconstruction work, the creation of the ‘better me’?
The long answer is philosophical, but the concise one is simply chemical: serotonin and endorphins. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel better because it allows the neurons of the brain to interact more quickly across the synapses, resulting in an elevation of mood as we feel increased confidence and ability. Ironically, the serotonin we consume directly from foods stays within the digestive tract, unable to cross the blood/brain barrier, but still its presence is essential to regulating digestion. Not surprisingly, the foods richest in serotonin are predominantly fruits – bananas, plums, pineapples, kiwi, tomatoes – and walnuts, foods long-since highly regarded for their ability to maintain proper metabolism.
In order for the brain to be able to create additional serotonin from foods, it needs the basic building block tryptophan, which is capable of crossing the barrier. Our bodies understand this naturally, inducing us to eat “comfort foods” when we’re feeling a little low, a wee bit sad (symptoms of serotonin deficiency). Tryptophan-rich foods include:
Consumption of these foods – mac and cheese anyone? – makes us feel better as the body draws the tryptophan into the bloodstream and is facilitated in the creation of serotonin. A few hours later, balance is restored and the feeling of sadness diminishes.
Endorphins are opiate-like chemicals that our bodies produce naturally and which produce feelings of euphoria and calm. Certain foods help elevate endorphin production, but a number of them are high in calories and/or fat, and so should be consumed as a special treat that will elicit a special chemical response in the brain of heightened sensitivity and mild euphoria. First among these foods is chocolate, second is strawberries, and third is ice cream. Is it any wonder that chocolate dipped strawberries are considered such a decadent treat, that everyone craves an occasional hot fudge sundae? Despite the calories, the body sometimes needs to counteract some present stress with calm and insistently presses its urge for these treats, even if the present stress being counteracted is a strict diet.
So, allowing yourself a treat every once in a great while when the craving is overwhelming is tantamount to listening to what your body is telling you, and sometimes what it’s telling you is you’re fighting an incoming low or that the pressure that’s building up is a bit too much. Neither extreme of too high or too low is valuable. The body will naturally seek its own balance, and it’s up to you to help yourself.