Serotonin Deficiency - Three Things Savvy Nutritional Supplements Shoppers Need to Know About 5-HTP
Serotonin is one of several important neurotransmitters in the brain. When there is not enough serotonin in the gaps between neurons in the brain, nerve impulses are not strong enough, or they are not conducted at all. The lack of brain activity leads to a generalized depression, which may or may not be related to life events.
Treating depression is sometimes described in terms of correcting a serotonin deficiency, but that is not really what happens. There can be lots of serotonin in the brain as a whole, but not enough serotonin in the gaps between neurons, where it is needed. There are at least two different ways to treat this condition.
One way is to force the neurons to keep the serotonin in the gaps by treatment with medications in a class of drugs known as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These drugs will keep serotonin in the junctions between nerves whether it's needed or not. That's fine if the doctor finds the right dose of the medication right away, but overdoses can cause some unpleasant or even life-threatening symptoms known as serotonin syndrome.
Another way is to provide the brain with the raw materials it needs to make serotonin and let it make the amount of serotonin it needs. The neurons make serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan. The nutritional supplement 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, is just a form of tryptophan that is used in a later step in the process of making serotonin.
Serotonin syndrome can results from overdoses of prescription medications. It can result from combinations of two or more different prescription medications, or combinations of prescription medications and street drugs, or combinations of prescription medications and certain herbs and supplements. These potentially dangerous symptoms do not occur, however, from the use of herbs or nutritional supplements alone.
If you have mild depression, no thoughts of suicide or homicide, and you are able to get through your daily routine, it's appropriate to try 5-HTP and St. John's wort and see if they work. For St. John's wort, in particular, you need to be sure to take enough. A daily dose standardized to deliver 900 mg of hypericin is best; research studies that have found that St. John's wort "doesn't work" used 300 mg a day or less.
These two supplements work in complementary ways. St. John's wort fights inflammation, and 5-HTP helps provide the raw materials for the brain to make serotonin.
If you start taking a prescription drug, however, stop taking these two supplements. The combination of prescription antidepressant and these two supplements can provide too much stimulation for the brain. And if you are coming off a prescription antidepressant, wait at least four weeks before you take St. John's wort, 5-HTP, or tryptophan.
Anytime your depression is so bad you feel like ending your life, or you are obsessed with how your life may end or thoughts of death or punishment, you need professional help. Herbs and nutritional supplements are not enough to treat severe depression. For mild to moderate depression, however, they may be exactly what your brain needs to rebalance its neurotransmitters and rewire itself to a healthy state.(See serotonin and depression).