Could an Amino Acid Cure My Winter Blues?

This mood booster is all the rage.

By Lauren Zielinski, MSN, CNM
amino acids help treat depression

Let’s talk about the natural mood-boosting amino acid known as 5-HTP. You may have heard of this buzz-worthy mood booster – it’s been getting some serious attention in the health community, and for a good reason! Early research proves this amino acid is a promising natural solution to uni-polar (IE: not bi-polar or “manic depressive”) depression. As a certified nurse midwife, I have to admit, I’m quick to try supplements before I turn to pharmaceuticals for most issues. If there’s scientific literature to support a natural cure to a common problem, I’m for it.

Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely a place and time for anti-depressant medications and I prescribe them regularly in my own practice; however, I love the option of starting with something more natural that’s proven to work when my clients are feeling blue. As always, if you have any medical or health conditions or currently use any medications, consult your healthcare provider before adding on anything new.

When it comes to depression, the cause is often multi-factorial. Sometimes it’s the winter weather that makes it hard to cheer up, a post holiday slump, or sometimes it’s situational. Did you know breakups are most common right after the holidays? Bummer.

Whatever it is that’s getting you down, it’s important to know that it’s okay to need help getting through a tough time.

Life doesn’t always look or feel as good as it does filtered through Instagram. When things get real, asking for help is more than okay. Read on for the facts and a little science lesson on how something as simple as an amino acid might help. Insert nerd emoji: Science is cool guys!

Healthy Keto Thanksgiving Leftovers Bowl

Your Mini Science Lesson.

5-Hydroxytryptophan (what a mouthful), also known as oxitriptan or 5-HTP (how I’ll refer to it moving forward), is a naturally occurring amino acid that plays an important role in your body to create the neurotransmitter serotonin. You’ve likely heard of serotonin before.

Serotonin is the chemical in your brain that causes you to feel happy, calm, elated, buzzy, and smiley.

It helps you sleep and can affect your appetite, temperature, sexual behavior and pain sensation – all in positive ways – when it is correctly regulated in your body. Many first line anti-depressant medications like Prozac and Zoloft actually work by increasing the available levels of serotonin hanging out in your brain to boost your mood.

So how does your body make serotonin naturally? Stay with me for a second  – the biological pathway to create serotonin begins with food. It usually comes back to nutrition, my friends! When you eat protein, your body absorbs an amino acid called tryptophan through digestion. Then through an enzymatic reaction that tryptophan is turned into 5-HTP. Then, through another enzymatic reaction, 5-HTP is then converted into 5-HT…also known as serotonin! Serotonin is then swooped up by your brain to help balance your mood and make you feel happy (picture yourself dancing to Pharell at a wedding).

yoga, gratitude, happy

What Does the Research Say?

 Preliminary and early research has shown that taking 5-htp supplement by mouth improves the symptoms of depression. Plain and simple! Several studies found that by taking doses of 150-400mg daily you may feel better in as few as 3-4 weeks.

Some research even shows that 5-HTP may be as beneficial as conventional depression treatment like Prozac or Zoloft.

The most common side effects in the research are heartburn, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. From my experience prescribing – most of the GI side effects occur with high doses or with people who have sensitive stomachs. Often, after taking 5-HTP for a few weeks, as long as you move up slowly, you can cruise past any GI issues. As serotonin is a precursor to the chemical that helps you sleep; melatonin,  some drowsiness may also occur, so I always suggest using 5-HTP at bedtime.

How Should I take 5-HTP? Where do I get it?

5-HTP is available at most health food stores and online. I suggest getting a good quality supplement to avoid contaminants. Don’t forget that supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, so you often get what you pay for in terms of pure, clean, high quality content. In regards to dosing I suggest starting low and increasing the dose of 5-HTP over a period of a few weeks to one month.

Begin by taking 50 mg of 5-HTP every night before bed for one week. If you tolerate this dose well you can move up to 100 mg every night before bed for one week. The next week you can move up to 200 mg, then 400 mg week by week. Some people only require 200 mg per night to feel the effects – while others may fare better with closer to 400 mg. You can also try taking 200 mg in the morning and 200 mg in the evening to help spread out the dose and benefit from that serotonin floating in your brain all day rather than just at night. Lastly – some people like to use 100 mg, three times per day – Find what works for you!

happy cooking in gail simmons kitchen

Special Precautions.

As there is not enough high quality research, I don’t recommend taking 5-HTP when pregnant or breastfeeding. Additionally, if you’re already on anti-depressants that interact with the way your brain uses serotonin, you shouldn’t add on 5-HTP on top of other meds. This would be an alternative form of treating depression, not an additional form. If you take any medications currently, always consult with a provider before adding on something new to be sure it’s safe for you!