There are many causes of depression and anxiety, including life events, unbalanced brain chemistry, poor nutrition, hormone imbalance, heavy metal toxicity and chronic infectious illness. The conventional medical approach includes anti-depressant and anxiolytic medication, sometimes with psychotherapy, but for the most part it ends there. This approach ignores imbalances in the physiology and biochemistry of the body that could be causing or contributing to depression and anxiety.
If depression and anxiety are due to factors such as the loss of a spouse or parent, empty nest syndrome, retirement etc, then it might be a normal response and not a medical problem. It is important to realize that these transitions can involve loss and grief and it is important to allow those emotions to occur and not feel like they have to be “fixed”.
Central to depression and anxiety is imbalances in brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals in our brains that regulate our feelings and emotions. Examples are serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine and GABA. Most anti-depressants work by up- or down-regulating these neurotransmitters using synthetic chemicals. For some this is a life-saving intervention, but for many, these medications either don’t have the desired effect, or come with unwanted side effects such as fatigue, digestive upset, loss of libido and a sedated feeling.
Another limitation can be seen in the case of SSRI’s – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. SSRI’s work by encouraging serotonin to be recycled and reused, not thrown out. But this is only helpful if there is enough serotonin to start with. If an individual is very depleted in serotonin, then recycling what’s there may not be enough.
Another option is to use natural amino acids to promote neurotransmitter production. Neurotransmitters are all created from amino acids in the body, so by giving therapeutic doses of specific amino acids, we can feed that pathway of neurotransmitter production in a way that is effective and much less likely to cause any side effects. Basically, we are giving the body more of the raw materials it needs to manufacture more neurotransmitters.
In the case of serotonin, 5-HTP can be used, or sometimes tryptophan. GABA, which is a neurotransmitter, can be directly supplemented as GABA. Both of these are inhibitory neurotransmitters, which mean they help to soothe and calm the brain. They are used in anxiety, insomnia and certain kinds of depression. Norepinephrine and epinephrine on the other hand, are fed by the amino acid tyrosine, which can also be supplemented. They are more stimulatory brain chemicals, so the tyrosine is used to make the brain for alert. It is often used in depressive states and also inattentive states as it can boost alertness and focus as well as mood.
Other amino acids have beneficial actions too. Glutamine can be helpful for stopping cravings of sweets, starches and alcohol. Phenylalanine can help calm pain (both physical and emotional) as it is a precursor to endorphins. Inositol can be helpful for obsessive-compulsive traits.
Amino acid therapy should be undertaken under the supervision of a doctor. Caution should be taken in people with liver damage, an overactive thyroid, schizophrenia or other serious mental illness, ulcers, lupus, inborn errors of amino acid metabolism, multiple medications and pregnancy.
For those already on anti-depressant or anti-anxiety meds, it is possible to taper off while introducing amino acid therapy, however doing both long-term is not advised.
To figure out which amino acids are needed, history taking and symptoms are important. However, it is also possible to do a urinary neurotransmitter test, so evaluate which ones are high and which ones are low. The test measures the metabolites of neurotransmitters as they are excreted, so this reflects the amounts being processed by the body.
Amino acid therapy is a viable alternative to anti-depressant and anxiolytic medications. Of course, looking for any other causative factors is important too – if an individual has low thyroid function and this is not addressed, then simply trying to support brain chemistry will not be enough. Also, chronic infectious processes can impact neurological function and brain chemistry – in these cases while amino acid therapy can help stabilize moods and emotions, the infection must also be addressed for full recovery to occur. However, many people have found relief from depression and anxiety using safe and natural amino acids.