The importance of Serotonin to Health
by Lynn Hinderliter CN, LDN

Although I have throughout my life been blessed with the ability to maintain remarkably good health, one distressful constant has plagued me: insomnia. I recall how grateful I was in the mid 70’s when I first came across the research on the amino acid L-Tryptophan, and found that it appeared to hold the key to restful sleep for me. Then, disaster struck: a Japanese manufacturer of amino acids attempted to make a cheaper formula using a new procedure, and a batch of the end product was contaminated: this resulted in serious illness for a number of unfortunates, and even some deaths. The FDA reacted (quite correctly) to the emergency by removing L-Tryptophan from the market. Sadly (and quite incorrectly!) once the shape of the crisis had become clear and it was obvious that a contaminant was at fault and not the L-Tryptophan itself, they did not remove the ban, and Tryptophan was unavailable, except by prescription, until 2002 or so when I  found an excellent source.

For a detailed account of the L-Tryptophan incident and its possible connection to genetic engineering, go here. (http://www.seedsofdeception.com)

Advances in research also made available a metabolite of Tryptophan called 5-HTP.  It is  reassuring to know that 5-HTP is a truly natural substance, extracted from the seed of an African shrub called Griffonia Simplicifolia.

First, a little more about Tryptophan. It is hard to get enough of this amino from the food supply: most proteins in our diet do not contain it, though milk is a convenient source – (as a side note, this is one reason why milk and cookies last thing at night can bring about a contented sort of mood: milk is high in Tryptophan, and the carbohydrates in the cookies raise insulin levels, allowing for more efficient transport/less competition with other amino acids.) Tryptophan’s connection to many different mental & neurological states has been demonstrated unequivocally in studies of various conditions, including suicide, depression, insomnia, schizophrenia, mental retardation, Parkinsonism, epilepsy and pain.

The reason it is a factor in so many differing states is that it is a precursor to serotonin  (Tryptophan5-HTP→Serotonin→Melatonin) and  many diseases which are connected with low levels of Tryptophan show low melatonin levels as well. It is therefore possible that people who hesitate to use melatonin, as well as those who find it doesn’t totally answer their sleep needs, might benefit from trying the more natural amino acid originator of the cascade.

Seratonin is an extremely important neurotransmitter, which regulates essential functions in hormone systems throughout the body. Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil are prescription drugs which act on serotonin levels, and the fact that they have such a broad range of effects on the psyche confirms the relevance of  L-Tryptophan to personality: the difference being twofold, a lack of side effects for the natural substance, and a considerably lower price.

Realizing that the brain regulates digestion and elimination (through a duplicate neurological system in the gut) explains why 5-HTP is often so helpful for people suffering from IBS.

In view of the effectiveness of Tryptophan, I imagine there are drug companies out there who wee very pleased by the delay in letting it  back on the market, but with the advent of 5-HTP, this was in any event no longer a problem for people looking for an effective natural approach to manifestations of what Dr. Sahelian, author of 5-HTP, Nature’s Serotonin Solution, terms “serotonin deficiency syndrome”.

I have read the results of a Swiss double-blind trial which compared 5-HTP with fluvoxamine (a kind of antidepressant known as an SSRI, or Serotonin Selective Re-uptake Inhibitor), and when all the figures were in, the 5-HTP group improved their scores on depression rating scales both objectively and subjectively significantly more than the medicated group. Dr. Sahelian lists the following conditions as ones studied over the past 3 decades in connection with 5-HTP: anxiety disorders, depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, migraine headaches, obesity, and some neurological disorders, such as the inability to control voluntary muscle movement.

In fact, an approach to Fibromyalgia which has had considerable success is  attempting to moderate the serotonin balance of the brain. An Italian study showed that administering 100 mg of 5-HTP 3 times a day resulted in a 50% reduction in symptoms. These were two studies, one of them double blind, 50 patients in each, and the results were the same each time – significant improvement. (J. Int. Med. Res. 1990; 18:201-9 and J. Int. Med. Res. 1992;20:182-9)

For some older patients the addition of small amounts of Melatonin can also be helpful. Because St. John’s Wort affects serotonin levels, many sufferers have found it a constructive addition. Do not, however, attempt this approach if you are using anti-depressants or MAO inhibitors! Interestingly, an excellent food source of Melatonin is Montmorency Cherry Concentrate.

Those who have had trouble dieting and losing weight – especially those who suffer from uncontrollable cravings for sugars and starches while they are dieting – will find these supplements immensely helpful. Another of Serotonin’s effects is on the appetite center in the brain where it plays a very important part both in controlling your appetite, and reducing those terrible cravings for carbohydrates. Women in particular seem to suffer from this problem when Tryptophan (and consequently serotonin) levels fall in the brain, and 5-HTP can definitely help. Dr. Bob Arnot, M.D. writes in his book Dr. Bob Arnot’s revolutionary Weight Loss Control Program “The more serotonin your brain makes, the fewer excess calories you’ll consume and the more likely you are to choose the great foods that will keep you lean”.

Which is likely to help you more, 5-HTP or L-Tryptophan?

All logic dictates that 5-HTP would be more effective:  less competition to cross the blood/brain barrier, since it is not an amino acid, better absorption (1% for L-Tryptophan, where one researcher calls 5-HTP “virtually a guided missile”). 

However, logic seems to have little to do with it, since I personally found after time no benefit for my sleep problems with 5-HTP,  whereas with L-Tryptophan not only does it eliminate my severe insomnia, but after a while I can even discontinue it for a few weeks before the condition recurs.   

This is not the result that  others have reported to me, so it would appear to be a case where experience is the only answer. My suggestion is to experiment, and see which one works best for you.

Remember, though, that a deficiency or B6 can cause poor absorption of L-Tryptophan. In extreme cases, only 1% of the ingested  amino reaches the brain. Many people who have low levels of stomach acid have insufficient supplies of B6.

Some relevant references:

1. Poldinger W, et al. A functional-dimensional approach to depression: serotonin deficiency as a target syndrome in a comparison of 5-hydroxytryptophan and fluvoxamine. Psychopathology 1991;24:53-81.

2. Zmilacher K, et al. L-5-hydroxytryptophan alone and in combination with a peripheral decarboxylase inhibitor in the treatment of depression. Neuropsychobiology 1988;20:28-35.

3. van Praag H. Management of depression with serotonin precursors. Biol Psychiatry 1981;16:291-310.

4. Byerley W, et al. 5-hydroxytryptophan: a review of its antidepressant efficacy and adverse effects. J Clin Psychopharmacol 1987;7:127.

5. Physician’s Desk Reference. 49th ed. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics Data Production Company; 1995.

6. Caruso I, et al. Double-blind study of 5-hydroxytryptophan versus placebo in the treatment of primary fibromyalgia syndrome. J Int Med Res 1990;18:201-9.

7. Cangiano C, et al. Eating behavior and adherence to dietary prescriptions in obese adult subjects treated with 5-hydroxytryptophan. Am J Clin Nutr 1992;56:863-7.

8. Maissen CP, et al. Comparison of the effect of 5-hydroxytryptophan and propranolol in the interval treatment of migraine. Schweiz Med Wochenschr 1991;121:1585-90.

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