For most of us, all the temptations we seek to avoid tend to become harder to resist in the late afternoon. Food cravings usually grow stronger, skipping our workout seems increasingly appealing, and mental laziness and procrastination start to settle in.
Why do we have more discipline in the morning?
Early research led by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University and described in his recent book, Willpower suggests that self-regulation functions like a muscle. Just as it is with any muscle group, self-discipline strength grows over time with repetitive use. But after a given occurrence of putting the self-regulatory muscle to use, it gets fatigued, and so less able to perform work.
After several hours at work, keeping our responses in check in the face of various ego threats and other stressful events thrown at us by clients, colleagues, or competitors, our self-regulatory muscle gets fatigued, our will power fades, and our healthy intentions lapse.
The Role of Serotonin
From my study of the interactions among sleep, food, mood, and exercise, I have concluded that serotonin is the biochemical of self-regulation. We already have extensive research showing that serotonin is a sleep regulator, that it helps curb cravings, and that it motivates us to follow-through with our intention to exercise. This was illustrated in research at Oxford, where rats with blocked serotonin receptors had little or no impulse control.
Intriguingly, further research by Baumeister and colleagues showed that participants could refresh their self-regulatory ability by drinking a glass of lemonade. Knowing that serotonin production is facilitated by carbohydrate consumption, my hypothesis is that the discipline-boosting power of lemonade doesn’t come from the experience of sweetness or the calories from the sugar, but rather from subsequent serotonin production. I contacted Baumeister over the phone a few years ago to see if he had ever tested serotonin levels. At that time he hadn’t done so, but he agreed that my hypothesis was both credible and interesting.
Last but not least in the serotonin discussion, scientist Simon Young and others suggest that production of this biochemical is promoted by light exposure. This notion further explains why self-regulation declines as the light goes down at the end of the day, or why we tend to have more cravings in the fall and winter months.
Craving Sugar or Serotonin?
Putting 2 and 2 together, what if our sugar cravings are really a symptom of serotonin depletion? Sugar is certainly a very easy way to get a serotonin fix, but here are several other options that are effective and much healthier:
- Going for a short walk
- Engaging in a short breathing break/meditation session
- Connecting with loved ones
- Helping someone else
- Giggling (maybe aided by a funny youtube video or radio station)
It works for me. It works for many of my clients. I’d love to hear if it works for you and yours as well. 😉