I came across the benefits of supplements more than 10 years ago as I noticed I was experiencing more Low Moods than usual. Talking about Depression at the time seemed like an overkill. I realised quickly this was not only due to SAD (which I experienced for years when I moved to Dublin due to the lack of light in the winter , see my article on SAD here) and I started to wonder; was I depressed?
To be honest I can not recall exactly what was going on at the time, but what I do remember is that the prospect of therapy and standard medication was not appalling to me. (still isn’t). I knew very little about what I could do to get out of those low mood, and when they became more frequent, I came across a book from Patrick Holford. It really helped me understand how mood work and what I can do to influence them, naturally, through a mix of better diet and supplements.
In a nutshell, when it comes to moods, one of the key Hormones is called Serotonin. Serotonin in your brain regulates your mood and happiness. Low level of serotonin are linked to depression. So if you are low in serotonin, how can you generate more of it? Here comes 5-HTP!
So what about 5-HTP?
5-hydroxytryptophan belongs to a category of what we call “Natural Anti-depressants”. The main reason being that 5-HTP (same as Tryptophan) are Natural Serotonin Enhancers. This is because Tryptophan turns into 5-HTP, which turns into Serotonin. This process requires Vitamin B, so it is a good idea to supplements vitamins too if your diet is not providing them.
Today, after months and months of pandemic, lockdown, unable to see my friends and family, with higher anxiety than usual, I find myself once again quite depressed, and I just completely forgot about the natural powers of 5-HTP. I started taking 5-HTP a week ago, and I already feel it. Of course this is not 5-HTP alone, but my mood is definitely better.
The first study on 5-HTP Mood-boosting powers goes back to 1970 in Japan. At the time already, patients given between 50-300mg per day showed improvement on their symptoms after only 2 weeks. There has been many more studies since then (dozens), as you can see some on PubMed, which all confirm the positive effect, sometime better than actual antidepressants. These are not just small studies, some of those research are clinical trials which are double-blind.
The key advantage is that you make your body produce Serotonin naturally.
Is it safe and how much should I take? 5-HTP is really safe. While there is always a risk, there is limited documented side effect. Nausea is one of them. But unlike antidepressants, there is not documented case of “serotonin syndrome” (overload of serotonin) in the last 25 years. In term of dosage, research show that more than 300mg does not provide additional benefits, so recommendation is to take between 50-300mg daily, starting low and increasing gradually. Personally, I am on 200mg at the moment and I think this is enough.
What about other benefits?
5-HTP is not only beneficial for depressions, check this article on the 5 science-based benefits of supplementing 5-HTP.
5-HTP is also highly beneficial to help your sleep, since serotonin can be converted to Melatonin which plays an important role in regulating your sleep.The combination with an other important supplements, GABA ( the emotion regulator) can provide more optimum benefit for people suffering from more serious sleep disorder. Check research on the benefit of combination of 5-HTP anf GABA for sleep. Source: PubMed
What about antidepressants such as SSRI?
SSRI antidepressants give you more of one of the feel-good chemicals. They are often referred to as the “Happy Pills”. But there are no magic pills if you ask me. Ultimately what those non-natural antidepressant do is to focus on Serotonin and Noradrenalin (Noradrenalin helping with the lack of motivation), by blocking the brain ability to break it down (and so you keep higher level longer). Sounds good but it comes with record side-effect, requires a careful approach to move off them (are they addictive?, big question).
SSRI and SNRI (the new patented generation) are used extensively for anything from depression to anxiety, OCD, ADHD and you name it.
More importantly, they are not proved to be more effective than the natural alternative (as discussed above), so why take the risk> I would keep those for really extreme cases, as a last resort.
Other Supplements worth considering
If you leave in Northern part of the globe, this is a necessity. I realised I lacked Vitamin D, and now I supplement it all year long, while keeping it in check through Blood Analysis every 6 months. A lot of us are deficient in Vitamin D, due to the lack of sunshine or a diet poor in oily fish which are a good source of Vitamin D. Vit D is an easy win, because it is widely available, pretty un-expensive, it improves your bones structure, boost your mood, and there are more and more research linking it to mood and memory improvement. If you suffer from SAD, then a combination of Vitamin D and exercise might just be enough.
How are your vitamin D levels? Vitamin D is easily tested by measuring the level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) in your blood. Ideally you are aiming at 125-200nmol/l. Now I would recommend to test your levels before deciding which level to supplement. While the risk is very low, there is such a thing as Vitamin D toxicity (very high level of Vit D are required to suffer from such thing). Testing has the advantage that, if your are really low, then your doctor could prescribe high concentration dosage to bring your levels back up and then you can easily maintain that with daily supplement. I take 1000uI a day (spray) and this seems to maintain my levels in winter.
SAM-e is one of the key nutrients which support a process called methyliation which happens in your brain and body. S-Adenosyl methionine is one of the most well-researched natural mood boosters.
Is it safe and how much should I take? It is a safe, natural amino-acid. No toxicity has been reported, even at higher therapeutic doses. It is best to start at low doses (200mg twice a day) then increase (potentially to 800mg twice a day).
Unfortunately SAM-e is not available in the UK and Ireland (it is classified as a medicine hence needs to be prescribed), although more recently I have found new sites offering it (so do a search on your favorite Search engine!). It is in the US, where you buy it over the counter. I can really recommend SAM-e, got me out of my worse Low Moods/depressive bout! and I always stock up when I get a chance to fly to the US.
If you are interested in understanding more about how to naturally boost your mood, I really recommend you read Patrick Holford’s book. He explains everything in a digestible way, which allow you to make your own choices. It is truly an empowering book for non-scientific people.
While I take a good bit of supplements, for the reasons that Patrick Holford describe in his book based on what I estimate is not coming form my dit, it is easy to fall in the trap of “overdoing it”. There are supplements for everything, but do they work, are they good quality and the right dosage and ultimately do you need them? It is sometime very hard to say.
There is also a lot of discussions and disagreement about how much of those supplements actually end up in your blood stream. Some mention as little as 30%?
All supplements are not equal in terms of quality and price, and there is little regulation, so do your research … you need the good stuff otherwise it might just end up being useless.