During the holiday season, you may have found yourself eating more cookies, cakes, breads, and other delicious baked goods than usual. You wouldn’t be the only one. But if polishing off a box of cereal solo, eating half a quart of ice cream, or gobbling down a whole bag of cookies is a common problem for you, consider that you may be suffering from a deficiency in your brain’s level of serotonin.
Serotonin is often spoken of as a “feel good” neurotransmitter due to low levels being correlated with symptoms of depression. Your body needs lots of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that the body cannot make on its own, to convert first into 5HTP and then into serotonin. When it does not have enough serotonin, the body may encourage you to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as carbohydrate binging because this helps raise the levels of serotonin in the brain.
You should also consider that serotonin deficiency can be a direct result in inadequate intake of proteins and particularly the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan deficiencies are surprisingly common in people who fail to eat enough protein and/or have protein digestion problems such as happens when they are getting older and have low stomach acid levels or were unwisely prescribed acid reflux medications. Stomach acid is crucial to unraveling tight spirals of proteins so that digestive enzymes can get in and clip them up into component amino acids that can be properly absorbed in the digestive tract.
People often inadvertently learn to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as carbohydrate binging and illegal drug use because they notice, often at a subconscious level, that it makes them feel better. Often it does this because there’s an adverse condition such as an amino acid, hormone, or neurotransmitter deficiency that has gone undiagnosed and untreated.
Some people may have caused such problems for themselves when they tried acid reflux medications that impaired their protein digestion or repeated attempts at low-calorie diets that featured inadequate levels of proteins. Such diets often deplete the body’s reserves of tryptophan and other important amino acids. Other people may have health problems such as poor protein digestion that create a tryptophan deficiency and therefore also a serotonin deficiency.
Unhealthy cycles of dieting and carb binging are particularly likely to produce tryptophan deficiencies because the dieting phase tends to deplete the body of adequate protein and then the carb binging masks the problem to some degree.
Having adequate tryptophan is so important to weight control that some studies show that overweight people who supplement with tryptophan tend to loose significant weight because they are finally able to easily cut out sugar-laden portions of their diet without an adverse effect on their mood.
Quoted from The Nine Pillars of Successful Weight Loss:
In fact, human studies suggest that obese patients have decreased plasma tryptophan levels that remain low, independently of weight reduction or dietary intake. This altered tryptophan metabolism reduces serotonin production and contributes to impaired satiety, which in turn contributes to increased caloric intake and obesity.
When obese patients were given 1,000 mg, 2,000 mg, or 3,000 mg doses of L-tryptophan one hour before meals, a significant decrease in caloric consumption was observed. The majority of the reduction in caloric intake was in the amount of carbohydrates consumed and not the amount of protein consumed.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, obese patients on protein-rich diets who received tryptophan (750 mg twice daily orally) had significant weight loss, compared with a placebo group.
For 19 years, tryptophan dietary supplements were restricted. The good news is that pharmaceutical-pure tryptophan supplements are once again available to Americans.
Those seeking to embark on a comprehensive weight-loss program should consider adding tryptophan (along with nutrients that inhibit tryptophan-degrading enzymes) to their daily program in starting doses of 500 mg before meals, two to three times per day.
Low levels of serotonin are also tied to low levels of melatonin, an important hormone that aids in sleep and is made by the body from serotonin. If you don’t have enough serotonin, it’s unlikely you will have adequate supplies of melatonin to sleep well. Poor sleep is likely to compound your depression and binge eating problems. Poor sleep and weight gain go hand in hand in many overweight individuals.
Carb Binging A Health Disaster
Carbohydrate binging has the effect of raising insulin levels which tend to take many amino acids that compete with tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier out of the bloodstream. This can improve tryptophan transport into the brain and raise brain serotonin levels.
But carb binging is a particularly harmful adaptation to low serotonin levels. Along with the changes in insulation and amino acid concentrations, it raises blood glucose levels dramatically and sends glycation, the harmful cross-linking of sugars with proteins and fats, sickeningly higher. Glycation has been compared to chemically cooking your body as the reactions involved are very much like those in the browning of baked goods and meats cooked at high temperatures. It’s one of the major complications of diabetes that leads to neuropathic pain, kidney and liver failure, and higher cardiovascular disease rates.
People who binge on carbs any more than infrequently are setting themselves up for diabetes and a plethora of other chronic health problems.
So if you’re addicted to carbs and have low mood that seems to be helped by binge eating, you should be looking for some healthier alternative than stuffing another muffin, cookie, or cake in your face. Anybody fighting to improve mood and cut out the binge eating should consider there are several good options that often help considerably before resorting to potentially dangerous and over-prescribed antidepressant medications.
For starters, take L-tryptophan supplements each day. Take at least 2 grams per day spread out as two to four doses. Continue for at least a month to see what effect it has. There is little risk of taking too much tryptophan unless you are going beyond around 5 grams per day. Most people probably won’t need more than an additional 3 grams per day. You could try up to 5 grams per day for a short time, perhaps a week or so, to boost your levels more quickly. But some studies suggest that increasing dosages past 6 grams per day may impair the beneficial effects. So I’d suggest you try not to go beyond 3 or 4 grams per day for longer than a week or two at a time unless you have a recent amino acid profile test that shows very low levels of tryptophan in your blood.
I don’t think you will notice any effect with dosages of tryptophan less than about 1 gram per day unless you continue taking it regularly for several months. Even when taking 2 or 3 grams per day, you should not expect instant results as it is going to take time to build your levels of tryptophan back up to a healthy range.
Some suggest taking tryptophan between or before meals. That’s probably good advice as it is likely to get more of it into the brain as other amino acids that compete for transport across the blood-brain barrier will be at lower levels and therefore in theory more tryptophan should make its way into your brain. Bedtime may also be a good time to take it because it has probably been a few hours since you last ate much and the boost in tryptophan during the night may help your body make more serotonin and melatonin to help you sleep better.
Tryptophan is commonly sold in both powder, capsule, and tablet forms. Most capsule and tablet products contain between 500 mg and 1000 mg (1 gram) per pill.
Some advise using 5HTP instead of tryptophan and claim that 100 mg of 5HTP is like 500 mg of tryptophan. It’s OK to use small quantities of 5HTP with tryptophan, but be cautious going past around 300 mg per day. 5HTP may convert into serotonin too rapidly, before it crosses into the brain. This is why tryptophan may be the superior supplement for those whose bodies have the resources to convert tryptophan into 5HTP, serotonin, and melatonin.
Increase Protein Intake and Digestion
Increase your consumption of dairy proteins and meat products with high protein. Dairy is one of the better foods sources of tryptophan. Turkey meat is also a good source of tryptophan. Increasing protein also gives your body another energy source other than carbohydrates and so may help satiate your appetite without binging.
Add protein-digesting supplements to your meals. Betaine HCl and pepsin are good inexpensive options. Bromelain may also be helpful and is relatively inexpensive.
Lower the dosage of acid reflux medications or discontinue them entirely. Many people who are using them do not need them and do not really benefit from an improvement in symptoms associated with acid reflux as in many cases high stomach acid levels are not the problem. Lowering stomach acid has an adverse effect on protein digestion and nutrient absorption that can be very harmful.
Raising Lysine Levels
Increase your intake of lysine at times you are eating proteins or tryptophan supplements. Lysine is another essential amino acid. It helps boost the transport of tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier so it can be converted into 5HTP and serotonin in the brain where they are needed most. Some particularly common signs of inadequate lysine are frequent viral infections and mouth sores such as canker sores. Some people report that simply adding 1 to 2 grams of lysine to their supplements each day is enough to completely eradicate frequent canker sores.
Certain vitamins such as niacinamide (a form of vitamin B3) and herbs such as rosemary, hops, and ginger can help the body use and distribute tryptophan more effectively.
The body also needs vitamin B6, vitamin B9 (preferably a natural form of folate such as methylfolate as the common folic acid can be toxic to some people with MTHFR gene variations that impair methylation), vitamin C, and magnesium to make effective use of tryptophan. Be sure to get enough of each by taking a multivitamin or B complex vitamin that provides 500% or more of the probably too low RDA of B vitamins. For vitamin B6, the P5P (pyridoxal 5 phosphate) form is particularly helpful because it can be tolerated in higher dosages than the conventional pyridoxine and helps block glycation damage, unlike pyridoxine.
If you’re not sure you are getting enough B vitamins, there are blood tests available for many of them. Deficiencies of folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 are particularly common and have also been tied to aggravated symptoms of depression, enough so that a special blend of these vitamins in their bioactive forms has been put into a prescription medication called Metanx. Although this medication was developed for diabetics, it is often prescribed by psychiatrists for use with antidepressants to help boost their effectiveness. It contains 3 mg of L-methylfolate, 35 mg of vitamin B6 as pyrixodal 5 phosphate, and 2 mg (2000 mcg) of vitamin B12 as methylcobalamin.
You don’t need a prescription to get the bioactive forms of vitamins found in Metanx. Simply look for vitamins that contain L-methylfolate (bioactive folate), P5P (pyridoxal 5 phosphate — bioactive vitamin B6), and methylcobalamin (bioactive vitamin B12). 35 mg of P5P isn’t that high a dose, many products that include it feature 50 mg or 100 mg of it. Many methylcobalamin dissolve in your mouth tablets include between 1000 mcg and 5000 mcg of it. It’s frankly hard to find a product with 3 mg of L-methylfolate, however, so you may need to take multiple capsules to get levels like that. So if you have medical insurance with low drug copays and a cooperative doctor with some awareness of nutrition and its impact on symptoms of depression then you may find it less expensive to get high dosages of these important B vitamins from Metanx.
Tryptophan and Serotonin Sparing Supplements
Your body converts tryptophan not only into serotonin but also into niacin, a form of vitamin B3. Adding 100 mg to 500 mg of niacin with each meal can help avoid some of this conversion and also is shown to improve blood lipid profiles. It’s safe for almost everybody except for people with severe liver or kidney disease. When you take immediate release niacin with a meal, it helps slow down the absorption enough that you probably will not get the red flushing, warmness, and itchiness that are harmless but annoying results of taking immediate release niacin by itself.
To give you an idea of how much difference taking niacin can make, consider that it takes the body about 60 mg of tryptophan to produce 1 mg of niacin. You don’t need much niacin, the RDA of 20 mg is low enough that almost everybody gets more than that. However, many think that 20 mg is not enough. If your body thinks it needs more niacin then it is going to burn through a lot of tryptophan to make the niacin and this will could worsen or even create tryptophan and serotonin deficiencies. Even making just the RDA of 20 mg would take 720 mg of tryptophan which is half or more of the amount that many people get in their diet, leaving little remaining for other uses.
Also take some melatonin each night before going to sleep. This will help improve your sleep and spare your body’s serotonin for other uses. A good starting dosage is probably around 1 mg to 3 mg around 30 to 60 minutes before you intend to fall asleep. Some people have used much higher dosages of melatonin, 10mg is fairly common but some studies have been done with even more than 500 mg of melatonin per day. The main side effect appears to be grogginess.
St. John’s Wort Boosts Serotonin
Consider taking small quantities of St. John’s Wort which can help boost serotonin levels. It’s best to take these in the evening because some people have a photosensitive skin reaction. A typical dose or St. John’s Wort may also have small quantities of melatonin in it, but not nearly as much as even a 300 mcg low dosage melatonin tablet.
Fish Oil and SAMe Also Help Boost Mood
You may also wish to consider other supplements that have been shown to help alleviate symptoms of depression over time. Although it is not as clear if they affect serotonin levels compared to the supplements listed above, some are low-risk and have other beneficial health effects. SAMe and fish oil products containing lots of omega 3 fatty acids are both shown in studies to help lower depressive symptoms and also have cardiovascular health benefits. SAMe is a relatively expensive supplement, but there are a lot of good inexpensive fish oil products that are excellent omega 3 fatty acid sources so I’d try those first.
If you are taking prescription antidepressants, particularly the widely prescribed SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) drugs such as Celexa, Zoloft, Prozac, Paxil, and many others, then as you try to boost your serotonin levels with diet and supplements you should also be on the lookout for symptoms of the relatively rare serotonin syndrome. Boosting serotonin too high can cause adverse reactions including agitation, difficulty sleeping, diarrhea and/or nausea, rapid heart beat and unusual shifts in blood pressure, confusion up to and including hallucinations, elevated body temperature, and problems moving your body including clumsiness and tremors.
The problem isn’t the brain level of serotonin in this case, it is the level outside the brain. When serotonin in circulation outside the brain becomes too high, it can cause the list of symptoms above. In extreme cases, serotonin syndrome can be lethal. Natural supplements and diet are unlikely to produce serotonin syndrome. The problem is much more likely when pharmaceuticals are involved, particularly a mix of SSRIs, MAOIs (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors), and certain painkillers such as Demerol and cough medicines such as dextromethorphan.
If you suspect serotonin syndrome, you may need emergency medical treatment. This is in my opinion one of the reasons why pharmaceuticals should not be a first line option for treating depression and binge eating as the options I listed above are likely to have benefits with much smaller risks of serious side effects such as serotonin syndrome.
Weaning Off SSRI Medications
If you intend to use natural alternatives such as tryptophan to wean yourself off of SSRI antidepressants, be sure to only gradually change your SSRI dosage and to discuss your plan with your doctor. SSRI dosage changes which are any more rapid than a very gradual change have lead to higher rates of suicide. It’s a common enough problem that even the dangerous drug promoting FDA decided it had to slap a black box warning on SSRI medications.
I’d be cautious about changing your SSRI dosage any more than 25% up or down in less than about a month. So if you’re hoping to discontinue SSRI medications by using some or all of the supplements listed above, plan on giving yourself at least 3 to 6 months to make such a change. Be sure that you have family and friends around you who are supportive and understanding and who are educated and aware of your situation so they can help watch for both the serotonin syndrome and SSRI suicidality side effects and get you help immediately if it looks like either are occurring.
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