Treating depression with 5 HTP and tryptophan

Tryptophan and 5 HTP Have Antidepressant Effects

Both tryptophan and 5-HTP are converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin and can produce antidepressant effects in some cases of depression. However other neurotransmitters can be the cause of depression.  
See also :-
  • Dopamine Dependant Depression
  • PEA Dependant Depression
  • GABA Dependant Anxiety
  • Serotonin Dependant Depression

The Serotonin Hypothesis of Depression

The drug companies like to market an over simplistic serotonin hypothesis that depression is simply a lack of serotonin in the brain and the way antidepressants work is that they increase serotonin levels, many alternative therapists particularly psychotherapists claimed that the serotonin hypothesis is completely wrong and that there’s no proof that a lack of serotonin causes depression.
So what’s the truth? The truth is we really don’t know exactly howdrugs and remedies that affect serotonin levels work, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t work. Sometimes chemical imbalances in our neurotransmitters are not the cause of depression and psychotherapy works best, but there are cases of depression when adjusting serotonin activity is the main solution. 
Boosting serotonin levels with the amino acid tryptophan is something I do personally three times a week as part of the regime I used to keep my bipolar depression in remission and I have met several patients over the years who had diagnosed serotonin deficiency syndrome remarked that serotonin boosting agents (drugs and remedies) transformed their life, and did so remarkably quickly. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater just because were not exactly sure how SSRI drugs work does not mean to say that serotonin doesn’t play a central role in depression.
Boosting serotonin levels is only one of many treatment options you can try for depression; in my practice I encourage people to try and experiment with different antidepressant treatments to see what works for them and tryptophan (and to a lesser extent 5-HTP) have shown themselves to be some of the most valuable natural antidepressant remedies that one can try. 

At the bottom of the page the academic reader can find scientific links to validate these claims, but the focus of this site is real practical solutions.

Let’s consider a when and if these serotonin boosting natural remedies may be helpful. Firstly they are only likely to work in people whose depression is heavily dependent on the activity of serotonin in the brain, it’s unlikely to work for example for somebody suffering from what is called reactive depression where one becomes depressed as a consequence of external stressful and painful life experiences; reactive depression is not a chemical imbalance and is best treated by psychological talking therapies. Secondly tryptophan and 5-HTP are only turned into the neurotransmitter serotonin, they cannot be turned into the neurotransmittersdopamine, norepinephrine, or phenylethylamine (PEA) which may equally be involved in causing depression. Many people including myself believe that it is the neurotransmitter dopamine and not serotonin which is primarily involved in bipolar syndrome and bipolar depression. 

So How Do You Know of an Imbalance in Serotonin Is Your Problem?

At present there are no medical tests to determine which individual neurotransmitter if any a particular case of depression involves. You can find clinics claiming to be able to determine your neurotransmitter status from urine tests, this is a complete waste of time and money. The urine is just a filtrate of the blood, the blood is separated from the brain by a highly specialised membrane called the blood brain barrier which is very specific about what it will and will not let pass between the blood in the brain and finally the brain itself is not a bag of neurotransmitter chemicals, the neurotransmitters are contained in tiny little vesicles within one nerve cell and then released into the tiny space (the synapse) between one nerve cell whereupon they are picked up by the next nerve cell as a chemical message. You simply cannot determine what is going on inside the synapses of the brain by analysing the contents of your urine.

It would be nice to have low-cost precise tests to predict which line of treatment is likely to produce the desired results.   In the meantime an effective solution is to perform personal experimentation to determine the most effective treatment, combination of treatments and dosages for your individual problem. One of the great things about the so called alternative medicine therapies is that you can experiment with them much more than you can with pharmaceutical approaches were I would largely recommend you have to stick to a prescription given to you by your Doctor.
WARNING: you absolutely must not take tryptophan, 5-HTP, St John’s wort or anything else that increases the production of serotonin AT THE SAME TIME AS taking SSRI antidepressants. The combination can produce a dangerous even potentially fatal condition called serotonin syndrome. You must also wait an appropriate number of days (at least two half lives) for any antidepressants you have been taking to wash out of your system before starting any serotonin increasing remedies. See antidepressants wash out times[INSERT LINK].

Is Tryptophan or 5-HTP for Right for You

Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, in other words it sedates and calms the brain; one can think of it is calming and tranquillises painful and anxious thoughts so that if its activity becomes diminished one can develop a deeply painful, antsy, anguished depression. This is what I call serotonin dependent depression and if this sounds like what you have try boosting serotonin first with tryptophan, St John’s wort, supportive B complex, magnesium and bright light therapy in the morning using one of the new blue or green-LED light boxes. Also always add between 700-1500 mg of EPA from a quality omega-3 fish oil.
If you’re on the right track you’ll observe signs of improvement within a week. If you do not see signs of improvement within two weeks serotonin imbalance is almost definitely not your problem and you should just move on to the next neurotransmitter, try boosting dopamine with tyrosine, if this doesn’t work try boosting PEA, if this doesn’t work try all the miscellaneous antidepressant remedies such as Rhodiola and SAM-e that can work but no one sure exactly which if any neurotransmitters they influence; if this doesn’t work rule out less obvious problems such as hypothyroidism, heavy metal toxicity, food and chemical allergies and sensitivities and lastly but by no means least engage in psychological talking therapies. In fact if suspect your depression is in any way related to past or current psychological issues than talking and psychological therapies may be the place to start.
Also see:-
  • Serotonin Dependant Depression
  • Dopamine Dependant Depression
  • PEA Dependant Depression
  • GABA Dependant Anxiety

Tryptophan Is Also Useful Sleeping Aid for Insomnia

As you can see from the figure at the top of the page not only do tryptophan and 5-HTP make the antidepressant neurotransmitter serotonin but they also make more melatonin which is our primary sleep hormone.
The conversion of serotonin into melatonin is prevented as long as sufficiently bright light continues to enter our eyes. As soon as our eyes go into total darkness the ideal gland in the brain starts to make melatonin; in fact the levels of serotonin plummet dramatically as soon as darkness descends and the pineal gland converts serotonin into melatonin. Topping up your reservoir of tryptophan late in the evening can not only be used as an antidepressant but also as an aid to overcoming insomnia. See for effective solutions to sleep problems.

My Personal History Taking Serotonin and Dopamine Precursors

I first took tryptophan with other supportive supplements in 1986 having had indulged in as depression more or less continuously the previous 13 years (since the age of 13). It’s changed my life literally overnight, flooding my brain with the tryptophan the precursor that serotonin is made from dramatically diminished by depression by the following morning and within a few days had switched it off. Totally depression free days was something I previously only ever experienced occasionally every few years; from beginning the remedies depression free days changed from being a rare peculiar experience to the norm. During the following three years from 86 to 89 I was depression free for 11 months each year, I then had my first full year without depression as my mental health continued to improve. I should say however that during that time I was also having weekly psychotherapy, improving my diet and dabbling in everything from acupuncture to polarity therapy.
Of all the things I tried two treatment approaches stood out as being effective and they were quality psychotherapy and chemically manipulating my neurotransmitter levels with natural remedies and supplements.
At the time I refused to believe that I had a chemical imbalance, this seemed to permanent and scary, instead I chose to believe that I had an endogenous depression of purely psychological origin and that I could cure myself permanently with enough psychotherapy. After in excess of 700 hours of psychotherapy, individual therapy, group therapy, gestalt, body-centred, psychoanalytic, process psychotherapy, even for vacations I would go to week-long psychotherapy group retreats. This may sound excessive but it isn’t when you consider I had serious mental illness that had nearly killed me on more times than I could count up on my fingers and toes, so I really wanted the therapy to completely cure me. Although the psychotherapy transformed me as a person, improved my ability to live with the depression and cleaned out (detoxified if you want) painful and upsetting toxic memories that contributed to my depression I would still from time to time have a relapse and whenever this occurred it was always changing or upping my antidepressant remedies not booking more psychotherapy sessions that would antidote the relapse and put me back into remission. I also observed that when I stopped or even just took holidays from the psychotherapy I didn’t quickly relapse however regularly when I discontinued my supplement regime I would relapse sometimes fairly quickly. Over the following 18 years manipulating my serotonin pathways consistently switched off relapses of depression and I became very adept at it; I remember sometimes managing to switch off depressions in as little as 10 hours from the sudden relapse of the condition. In my forthcoming book balancing brain chemistry for depression and bipolar syndrome you’ll find detailed lists of remedies and techniques that I used on myself and my patients to correct imbalances in serotonin.
Yet still the condition would return so gradually during my 40s I began to accept what this state of affairs meant and that the correct diagnosis for me is a chemical imbalance in the brain and no amount of talking therapy would be completely curative. Having said that the talking therapy did things that the chemical approach could not, not the least of which was that without the self-awareness and self-understanding the talking therapies furnished me with I doubt if I would be able to observe my psychology and know as and when I needed to self-medicate my brain chemistry.
In my mid-40s became seriously mentally ill again but on this occasion no amount of boosting serotonin levels worked; also the quality or nature of the depression was distinctly different: less passionately painful and more demotivated apathy. I now understand that this is more the characteristic of an imbalance in dopamine and that inexplicably I had now developed a significant imbalance in dopamine as opposed to as well as a serotonin imbalance. The depression caused by lack of serotonin is so painful that one is actually highly motivated to try anything and everything unfortunately including suicide to stop the pain; the depression caused by lack of dopamine on the other hand completely lacks any drive and motivation even to find effective solutions for the problem! It also didn’t make sense to me that halfway through one’s life my brain chemistry could so dramatically shift.
Eventually however after several years of illness icon on that a deficiency of dopamine was now central to my current situation. Taking the amino acid L-tyrosine which is the precursor for dopamine produced therapeutic effects within hours of the first dosage, giving me a surge of mental energy and motivation. The elevated dopamine levels and surge of energy pretty quickly turned into a state of hyper-mania finally forcing me to accept the diagnosis of bipolar syndrome which I had refused to accept over the previous two decades. Each time the surge in dopamine I would get from tyrosine caused a hyper-manic state I would discontinue it and tranquillises my system with anti-mania amino acids and very down low-dose lithium, basically returning myself to a dopamine deficient state depression and then attempt attempt once more to find a balanced dosage for the dopamine stimulating remedies (L-tyrosine and Rhodiola). At this point I had been incapacitated by mental illness the previous five years but within six weeks experimentation the first dose of the amino acid precursors of dopamine my condition was in full remission.

Is There Any Real Evidence That Tryptophan and 5-HTP Works?

Actually yes there’s quite a bit of evidence showing that tryptophan and 5-HTP have antidepressant effects. Most of the studies date  from the 1970s and 80s before the advent of SSRI antidepressants. It would be a mistake to think that the lack of continued research and development into the antidepressant uses of nutritional supplements as antidepressants after the early 1980s was because these remedies are ineffective, the more obvious reason is business economics.
At that time research funds were put into exploring the potential of supplementing the building blocks of neurotransmitters (tryptophan to make serotonin and tyrosine to make dopamine) as an antidepressant treatment because too many people found the side-effects of the older generation of antidepressants (MAOIs and tricyclic-antidepressants) unacceptable. As soon as SSRIs such as Prozac were developed in the 1980s which produced far less side effects than the previous generation of antidepressants and turned out to be incredibly profitable research into unpatentable and unprofitable strategies such as supplementing tryptophan, 5-HTP, tyrosine and phenylalanine was almost completely discontinued. It is widely known that effectiveness of SSRIs was initially greatly exaggerated and since the mid-naughties numerous studies have shown other approaches such as CBT can be just as effective in all but the most severe cases. You get different answers depending on which statistics you look at but a rough ballpark estimate is that antidepressant drugs may reduce symptoms of depression by about 50% in perhaps 50% of depressed people. My point being that natural remedies such as EPA fish oil, tryptophan, tyrosine, phenylalanine, St John’s wort, SAM-e, Rhodiola, even bright light therapy etc etc etc may only produce gentle antidepressant effects but pharmaceutical antidepressants aren’t the powerful and effective remedies there were once claimed to be. Furthermore when multiple natural therapies are properly integrated together the combined effect can be both effective and still remain safe and side-effect free.

My practice and my website is first and foremost dedicated to clinical applications as opposed to academic research saw not to give a long list of references or review the research data myself the academic researcher will find everything they need to get started in this area from the following two articles if these links do not work please let me know and I’ll furnish you with further references:
Use of Neurotransmitter Precursors for Treatment of Depression by Stephen Meyers MS
Also providing many more links to scientific research is:
neuropsychopharmacology 5th generation of progress:
Woggon 1977 The treatment of depression was L-five-hydroxytryptophan versus imipramine. Results of two open and one double-blind study.
Alino et al 1976 5-hydroxytryptophan and MAOI (nialamide) in the treatment of depression’s. A double-blind controlled study.
Ayuso Gutierrez 1971 tryptophan and an MAOI in the treatment of depression. A double-blind study.
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Hi my name is Peter Smith I specialise in treating and coaching people how to live well with mental health problems, digestive health problems/IBS, sleep problems and type II diabetes using natural therapies.
I used these techniques to overcome and live well with my own bipolar disorder and IBS. I've been in practice as a natural medicine practitioner since 1988.

What I Treat

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If you’d like treatment for any of the issues discussed in this article I specialise in treating and coaching people how to obtain better mental health with natural remedies and self-help techniques. If you would like me to look into your individual case and develop a tailor-made programme of natural remedies, dietary advice and brain training exercises I’m available for private consultations and I’m available for private consultations at my London clinic and online for people that live too far away.
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