Easy, fast and healthy recipes from Kornelia's Kitchen to feed your family without spending the day at the stove.
Saturday, 1 March 2014
Serotonin snacks make you happy
The research for my new book ‘Cooking for Happiness’ keeps me busy for
quite some time now. It seems to me that science has not acknowledged
sufficiently yet how much food is influencing our mood. During the
recent decade however, there has been a lot of progress. "Food is like a
pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain," wrote Fernando
Gómez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery and physiological science, in
2008 on the website of the University of California (UCLA).
Like my other books, I intend to write ‘Cooking for Happiness’ based on
my experience. In this month’s newsletter I publish my first recipe
developed for this book. In the article below, ‘About serotonin, insulin
and the blood brain barrier’, I explain why I call my whole-wheat rolls
Actually, I have experimented for years with making bread – without
chemical additives - but the results never really satisfied me. Then I
watched a show on TV showing how the French craft their baguette. I
love, love, love baguette. Nowhere in the world smells bread as lovely
as in France. I believe they have their own brand of yeast that produces
the wonderful scent of baguette.
Anyway, I would never dare to try making baguette but I learned two
things from this show: It takes two days to make baguette and they
sprinkle the baguette with water during baking to get a nice crust.
I incorporated these techniques into my humble bread rolls and voilà!
For the first time, I really liked my rolls – and I know exactly what I
went into preparing them. Even my son, as you might know a picky eater,
calls them delicious. They are quite dense and you have to chew them
well, but as far as I can tell, they really raise the level of serotonin
in the brain. Please read my explanation below to understand how and
when you have to eat them.
Ingredients (for 24 whole wheat rolls):
1 kilogram whole wheat flour
200 grams oat or wheat bran
2 packets dry yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
You need time to make these rolls, but the method itself is very easy.
First you have to wake up the dry yeast. Remember that yeast is a
fungus, which loves a warm, moist environment. I used to heat up the
water to start the dry yeast but many times I made it too warm and
killed the yeast instead.
Here in Goa, India, the weather is actually so warm that you can use
water at room temperature and it works just fine. If you live in a warm
climate, you might want to warm up the water a little. Take about half a
cup of water, stir two tablespoons of sugar into the water and add the
yeast. Now wait until bubbles start to form. When you see the bubbles
you know that the yeast has woken up and wants more food.
Place the flour and the bran into a big mixing bowl. I like oat bran
because it gives a slightly nutty flavour to the bread. Dig a hole in
the middle and pour the yeast mixture into the hole. Cover the yeast
with flour and wait until the flour over the yeast shows cracks and the
yeast bubbles spill out. Now sprinkle the salt over the flour, place a
container with water next to your mixing bowl and dive in with your
You need to mix the yeast with the flour and water until you have
smooth dough. Be careful with adding the water. Start by adding one cup,
mix it in and then keep adding more until you have incorporated all the
flour. You need between half and three quarter of a litre. The dough
should be elastic without sticking too much to your hands. If you have
added too much water and the dough remains sticky, add some more flour.
If the dough crumbles and does not come together well, you need more
Cover the dough with a wet cloth and let it rise in a warm, safe place
for about two hours (also three hours would not hurt). When the dough
has doubled its size, knead it again. This second kneading makes sure
the yeast is distributed evenly through the dough.
Spread a silicone-baking sheet or baking paper over a cookie sheet and
make 24 little rolls from the dough. To divide the dough evenly, I first
halve it, and then halve it again and again. The remaining eighth of
the dough is enough for three rolls. I shape the dough into balls and
place them onto the cookie sheet. If you want to sprinkle sesame or
poppy seeds over the top of the rolls, do it now and press the seeds
slightly into the dough.
Now make the cloth really wet, spread it gently over the rolls and let
them rise overnight. That is not as long as the two days for baguette,
but it really makes a difference. It is important that the covering
cloth is wet enough to keep the rolls moist over night.
Finally, it is time to bake the rolls. I bake my rolls for one and a
half hours at lowest temperature (180 degrees) in my gas oven. After
three quarters of an hour, spread the wet cloth over the rolls to
moisten the surface. You should see some steam rising. Repeat this at
least two more times. Because the flame in my gas oven comes from the
bottom, I use the grill for around 5 minutes at the end of the baking
time to give the top of the roll a nice crust. If you have an electric
oven, this might not be necessary. Enjoy!
About serotonin, insulin and
the blood brain barrier
Our bodies are complicated organisms. They depend on many things; the
neurotransmitter serotonin is one of them. Serotonin is one of the most
common neurotransmitters in nature. Even the simple amoeba uses
serotonin. In our bodies serotonin acts in many different ways.
About 90 percent of all the serotonin in our bodies is found in and
around our digestive system where it regulates the movement of our gut.
In our brains, serotonin is influencing our mood. Well-balanced
serotonin levels lead to a happy, relaxed and confident outlook on life
and good sleep. Many scientists nowadays believe that low levels of
serotonin are a major cause for depression.
However, it is not easy to raise the levels of serotonin in the brain.
You can eat serotonin supplements, but they will not reach the brain due
to the blood brain barrier. Only the amino acid (protein) tryptophan
and its metabolite 5-hydroxytryptophan, the building blocks for
serotonin, are able to cross this blood brain barrier – and this only
under certain conditions.
I have read the following explanation for this mechanism in ‘The
Serotonin Power Diet’ by Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, and Nina T. Frusztajer,
MD, a book I can recommend if you want to explore the benefits of
serotonin further. When you eat a meal rich with protein, your digestive
system sends them into the blood. There they compete with each other to
enter our brain. At this time, tryptophan has no chance to cross the
barrier because the other amino acids clutter the entrance.
What you need now, around two hours after a protein rich meal,
is a carbohydrate snack to release a small spike of insulin. This snack
should contain as little fat and protein as possible. It can have some
sugar, so you could eat the whole-wheat rolls spread with jam or honey –
but forget the butter. You need at least 30 grams of carbohydrates for the desired effect
The carbohydrates release the hormone insulin from the pancreas.
Insulin pushes all the proteins from the blood into the organs – and
makes the way free for tryptophan to enter the brain. Once it has
reached the brain it is quickly converted into serotonin. For around half an hour after eating a serotonin carbohydrate snack you should avoid eating anything with protein or fat.
Don’t expect any immediate results. It takes about two weeks to build
up serotonin levels. Although my husband and my son might disagree, I
feel a lot better after using this trick with the serotonin snacks for
about two months now. I also sleep a lot better.
One more time in short: Eat a serotonin snack two hours after a protein
rich meal and then wait for half an hour before eating fat or protein.
By the way, many common antidepressants work with serotonin. For
example, Prozac is a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI). That means it
makes serotonin stay active longer in the brain.