Amino acid therapy is a viable option for those suffering from common mood issues and a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals, which often come with a nasty laundry list of side effects. These conditions often arise from low serotonin and low catecholemines, (dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine). When coupled with diet and lifestyle changes, amino acids can be amazing, fast-acting helpers that can significantly reduce frustrating and sometimes debilitating symptoms.

Seeking serotonin

In her book The Mood Cure, Julia Ross explains that serotonin is our defence against depression and anxiety. When serotonin is depleted, you experience panic, irritability, insomnia, PMS, muscle pain, seasonal affective disorder, irritation, temporomandibular joint issues (TMJ), and you also crave sweet and starchy foods or wine. She adds that people with low serotonin are often perfectionists, see the glass as 'half empty', and suffer from low self-esteem or low self-confidence.

Serotonin is built from tryptophan. Tryptophan is synthesised into a compound called 5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5-HTP), and serotonin is produced from 5-HTP. Serotonin then converts into melatonin, which is why people with low serotonin often suffer from insomnia. However problems arise when the conversion of tryptophan to 5-HTP is blocked, which can occur due to various reasons: not getting enough tryptophan in the diet, having a genetic mutation, being exposed to chemicals in food, drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, eating artificial sweeteners, pregnancy, lack of exercise or lack of sunlight. Additionally, inflammation can play a role in robbing the body of precious serotonin: if inflammation is present, this shunts tryptophan away from the serotonin-building pathway down a different route in the body, called the kynurenine pathway.

If you think you might have low serotonin, there are many things you can do to increase this valuable neurotransmitter. Taking a supplement of 5-HTP or tryptophan can make a quick and dramatic change. 5-HTP can bypass the kynurenine pathway but tryptophan cannot, so supplementing with 5-HTP is advisable. Eat a tryptophan-rich diet: foods highest in tryptophan include wild game, eggs, sesame seeds, crab, spinach, halibut, prawns, lobster and salmon. Eat good quality fats - healthy fat (avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, MCT oil, ghee and grass-fed butter )intake increases availability of tryptophan to the brain. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and aspartame (NutraSweet); this contains aspartic acid and l-phenylalanine, which compete with tryptophan and serotonin production. Ensure you’re getting enough of the nutrients required for the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, including calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, and B vitamins. Reduce stress, as chronic exposure to high stress can saps serotonin. Ensure you’re getting enough sunlight, because sunlight signals the brain to produce serotonin.

A question of catecholamines

Another common culprit behind mood issues such as ADHD is a lack of catecholamines. The catecholamines are the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. When you produce enough of them, your brain is energised and alert and you feel upbeat and have no trouble concentrating. When you don’t produce enough however, you may feel emotionally, mentally and physically apathetic, sleep a lot, have trouble dragging yourself out of bed in the morning, lack focus and concentration, feel easily chilled (often have cold hands and feet) and have a strong desire for 'uppers' like chocolate or caffeine. Ross adds that people with low catecholamines are often drawn to recreational drugs and that they will actually experience an energy boost from typical 'downer' drugs like tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana.

What you can do

Tyrosine is an amino acid that is very helpful to those suffering from low catecholamines. It’s found in high-protein foods and is the main ingredient in catecholamine production. Ross says it takes only 10 to 15 minutes for this amino acid to work on the brain, and start turning around apathetic mood and enhancing concentration and motivation. Other ways in which you can support your levels of catecholamines include:
*Reduce stress: There’s a limit to how many catecholamines your brain and adrenal glands can produce. If you’re constantly stressed, then your catecholamine stores will become depleted.
*Protein is imperative: Some of the best tyrosine-rich protein sources are eggs, salmon, turkey, quail, and game meat. Reduce sweet and starchy foods that divert amino acids from the bloodstream into the muscles, away from the brain.
*Ensure you’re getting enough B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium. Depletion of these key nutrients contributes to symptoms of low catecholamines.
*Make time to exercise, as this raises catecholamines.
*Take a fish oil supplement. Ross says that eating more fish and taking omega-3 fish oil supplements can raise your catecholamines by 40 percent.
*Ensure you have adequate vitamin D. This fat-soluble vitamin acts like a hormone in the body, encouraging the conversion of tyrosine to catecholamines in your brain and adrenal glands.
*Check the health of your thyroid. Thyroid hormone directs tyrosine into catecholamines and a sluggish thyroid inhibits this process.
*Amino acids play a big role in mental health, and sometimes supplementation is all it takes to see a real and positive difference. When combined with diet and lifestyle changes, amino acids are a safe and effective way to treat otherwise debilitating conditions relating to mental health.

Note: Never take supplements if you’re trying to conceive, are pregnant, are breastfeeding or are on medications. Always speak with your doctor first. Never take serotonin-boosting supplements if you are on an SSRI before speaking with your doctor. It’s advisable to work with a qualified health practitioner when it comes to developing a supplement regime.

Tara Thorne is a clinical nutritionist. Her practice focuses on helping busy women navigate the overwhelm and confusion, and live healthfully in a hectic world.