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canstockphoto3347905Many people struggle with depression and/ or anxiety.  In fact, anti-depressant medications are a multi-billion dollar industry and more and more people are prescribed them every day.  I recognize that there cases where anti-depressant medications give people a new lease on life, and for some, they can be crucial to their existence and their well-being to have them.  But for some, amino acid therapy for depression and anxiety can provide similar benefit without the unwanted side effects of pharmaceutical medications, as they also work to help balance neurotransmitters in the brain.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that assist in nerve conduction from one nerve to the next. They are released at the end of a nerve fiber when a nerve impulse travels through, and carry the nerve impulse on to the next cell. Imbalances in neurotransmitters can cause major issues such as anxiety, depression, issues with memory, cognition, mental processing and more.  These imbalances are common, hence the widespread use of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication.

Some medications work by increasing neurotransmitter production, but many work by preventing neurotransmitters from being discarded, instead recycling them to be used again. One of the challenges with that is that in many cases, the limiting factor is not enough of the neurotransmitter to start with. Let’s take the case of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. They function by preventing the reuptake of serotonin back into the neuron, thus lengthening its action as a messenger between cells. But what if there are low levels of serotonin to start with? All the recycling in the world can’t correct fundamentally low levels, even though they can successfully prolong and optimize the activity of what is there.

One of the modalities that I find so helpful is amino acid therapy. Amino acid therapy is a way to naturally and safely increase the supply of the raw materials the body needs to produce neurotransmitters. We can supplement with the building blocks, so that the body can take those raw materials and create more neurotransmitters.   The raw materials are specific amino acids that fuel specific neurotransmitter pathways. This often brings relief from many psycho-emotional symptoms, without the many side effects of prescription anti-depressants.

People who are already on anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications can also benefit from amino acids therapy, but it must be done under the supervision of a physician to make sure levels remain in balance. Serotonin syndrome occurs when levels of serotonin get too high, so if one is taking SSRI’s, for example, it would not be wise to take large doses of 5-HTP.

Each neurotransmitter has its own pathway, and uses different amino acids. Three of the major pathways are the serotonin pathway, the dopamine/ norepinephrine pathway, and the GABA pathway.

Serotonin Pathway

Tryptophan => 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) => serotonin => melatonin

You can see that the serotonin pathway starts with tryptophan, and moves through 5-HTP to become serotonin. Interestingly, serotonin is converted to melatonin, so people with chronic insomnia can also benefit from supporting the serotonin pathway.

Many people associate tryptophan with the post-turkey dinner sedative effect!! That, in its most basic form, is an example of an amino acid fuelling a neurotransmitter pathway, in this case creating more serotonin and melatonin. Of course, that might not be ideal for anyone’s productivity, so people turn to supplements for a more regulated and metered dose (without the extra calories of all the turkey trimmings!).

Once upon a time, tryptophan was used extensively as a supplement in the United States. Sadly, it was restricted by the FDA in 1989, and got some bad press around that time. Today tryptophan can be found in supplemental form, but 5-HTP has taken over in popularity. In other countries tryptophan is widely available.

5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, is the molecule that is made from tryptophan and goes on to become serotonin. Supplementing with 5-HTP gives the body more raw materials so it can produce its own serotonin and melatonin. For these reasons, it can have tremendous benefit in depression, and in anxiety too. Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it has a calming effect on the brain. 5-HTP tends to be calming, balancing, and relieves depression. In larger doses, it can help push the pathway towards melatonin and assist in sleep.

I prefer GABA for anxiety, but for some people 5-HTP helps even better. As with so many elements of health, it is worth trying one at a time and seeing which one causes a better response.

The Epinephrine Pathway

Phenylalanine => Tyrosine => L-Dopa => dopamine => norepinephrine => epinephrine

The epinephrine pathway uses the amino acid phenylalanine, moving through tyrosine to become dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. Most people are familiar with Parkinson’s medications that work by increasing dopamine to stabilize neurological function.

I use tyrosine more extensively than phenylalanine for supporting this pathway. In her book, The Mood Cure, Julia Ross talks about using phenylalanine to relieve pain, as well as depression, fatigue and cravings. The d-form of phenylalanine is better for pain relief, while l-phenylalanine is more stimulating (and logically the dl-form is a combination of both).

Tyrosine in supplemental form is helpful for depression where there extensive fatigue, low moods, apathy, low libido, poor concentration and focus. I choose tyrosine when “the blahs” seem to be dominant in the depression picture, and 5-HTP more when feeling wired and anxious occur along with it. Some people do well with both, but of course I recommend starting one at a time.

Tyrosine also functions to support the thyroid, so in some cases, supplementing can boost energy and metabolism through optimizing thyroid function. Those taking thyroid hormone medication and/ or other thyroid boosters (glandulars, iodine etc) should monitor their thyroid levels when starting to take tyrosine.

I have also use tyrosine in cases of inattentiveness, lack of focus, memory loss and other cognitive issues. Julia Ross (author of The Mood Cure) uses it to assist in addiction recovery with excellent results.

Too much tyrosine can be too stimulating, so it is wise to start slowly and build incrementally.

The Glutamine-GABA Pathway

Glutamine       =>       Glutamate       =>       GABA

The GABA pathway starts with glutamine. However, in this particular case, we actually supplement with GABA itself. One of the reasons for the this is that it is available in supplement form as actual GABA, so it does not even require any processing or synthesizing by the body. Also, while glutamine is an amino acid that can have some benefit in the brain, high glutamate is excitatory and causes more problems than it solves. Therefore to avoid the risk of too much glutamate actually opposing the desired result, which is a calmer brain, we supplement with GABA itself. Supplemental GABA is also the antidote to high glutamate.

I have found GABA to be very helpful for anxiety. Some of my patients have been able to get off benzodiazapenes with the use of supplemental GABA, as it provided enough of the calming effect they needed, without risk of dependence and withdrawal concerns.

Generally speaking, amino acid therapy is very safe and effective – it can lead to a more balanced and even mood, less depression and anxiety, better focus and concentration, and even things like less cravings, increased libido, and lower pain levels. As I mentioned, for those already taking pharmaceutical medications that influence neurotransmitter levels, greater care must be taken to keep everything in balance, and physician supervision is recommended. Clinics such as the Amen clinic and Julia Ross’s clinic (The Nutritional Therapy Institute Clinic) provide assistance to patients in this capacity also.

I love amino acid support for neurotransmitters, it is relatively inexpensive, safe and effective.  Many people experience depression, anxiety and cognitive issues such as inattentiveness, so my suggestion is to consider amino acid therapy before resorting to prescription medications.