When it comes to treating weight gain, migraines, insomnia, anxiety, or depression with natural remedies, the key word to remember is serotonin. This is a specialized brain chemical, called a neurotransmitter and sometimes dubbed "the mood molecule."

Serotonin is central to controlling mood, sleep, pain levels, and appetite such that physicians are starting to talk about a "serotonin deficiency syndrome." For a conventional physician, Prozac is the latest drug of choice for enhancing brain levels of serotonin, but in the world of alternative medicine, doctors reach for an amino acid (protein building block) called L-tryptophan.

That is, they used to reach for it, until the FDA banned it, seemingly forever, in 1989, based on a fluke contamination incident involving a single batch produced in Japan. It's hard to imagine banning a fundamental nutrient - it's like outlawing vitamin C - but the FDA is not known for being in accord with human biology and the requirements of nutrition or healing.

Curiously, banning tryptophan - a safe, inexpensive, effective, and natural precursor to serotonin - opened the door for Prozac and its imitators which have enjoyed huge financial success in the 1990s as synthetic mood elevators, despite their considerable side effects.

The FDA restrictions on tryptophan were eased somewhat in 1996 so that physicians could prescribe it to patients. But now tryptophan is back - and legal for everyone, without a prescription - in the form of a consumer product called 5-HTP (5-hydroxy-tryptophan).

SLEEP EASILY AGAIN - A Norwegian study showed that 5-HTP can affect sleep patterns by increasing the levels of serotonin, which is needed for sleep. Serotonin is needed to produce melatonin, a hormone which regulates sleep-wake cycles.

The researchers injected cats with 5-HTP (40 mg/kg body weight) or L-tryptophan and found that both substances had a "general deactivating effect on the waking state" and produced a deep sleeping state. For humans seeking relief from insomnia, it may be helpful to take 5-HTP on an empty stomach about one hour before sleeping.

REDUCES ANXIETY - in a 1990 study in The Netherlands, 20 patients with panic disorder took 5-HTP (60 mg intravenously). None of the patients demonstrated an increase in depression or anxiety following treatment, while nine patients in the control group reported a depressed mood. Several of the 5-HTP patients stated that the infusion was "a relief" and subsequent blood tests showed that blood levels of melatonin increased after the 5-HTP infusions.

LIFTS DEPRESSION - in a 1991 Swiss study, patients diagnosed with clinical depression were given either 150 mg of fluvoxamine (a standard antidepressant drug) or 100 mg of 5-HTP, three times daily. The patients were evaluated every two weeks using standard tests for depression. After six weeks, both groups showed improvement, but the 5-HTP group had a larger percentage of improved patients and a slightly higher degree of improvement. The effect of 5-HTP also became greater as time passed; that is, it produced more relief in week six than in week two.

Another report compared the results of three studies involving 5-HTP and imipramine (another standard antidepressant). All three trials showed no difference in the effect of the two substances. Once again, 5-HTP performed as well as the conventional drug and 5-HTP did not produce the side effects of dry mouth and tremors typically caused by imipramine.

HELPFUL FOR WEIGHT LOSS - A 1992 study with obese subjects in Italy found the 5- HTP produced "significant weight loss." Specifically, 5-HTP helped patients reduce their carbohydrate intake and gave them a feeling of "early satiety" - that they'd eaten enough and felt calorically satisfied. This, in turn, led to a reduced food intake and, from there, weight loss was at hand.

Even without special diets, those in the group taking 5-HTP lost an average 3.1 to 3.7 pounds during the six-week study; those in the placebo group averaged only a 1.1 pound loss. "These findings together with the good tolerance observed suggest that 5-HTP may safely be used to treat obesity," concluded the researchers. Typically, for weight loss purposes, 5-HTP is taken at a dosage of 50-100 mg about one-half hour before mealtime.

PROVIDES MIGRAINE RELIEF - There is some evidence that 5-HTP may be helpful with migraines. A Spanish study compared the use of 5-HTP and methysergide, a conventional migraine drug. A large percentage of both patient groups showed "significant" improvement: 75% of the methysergide group and 71% of the 5-HTP group had benefits.

In other words, 5-HTP produced nearly comparable benefits to a standard migraine drug. The study showed that 5-HTP was most effective in reducing the intensity and duration of the migraines rather than the frequency; 5-HTP also produced fewer side effects than the drug. The obvious additional application here is to use 5-HTP as a prevention for migraines, if you are already susceptible to them.

HOW 5-HTP WORKS - Tryptophan is found naturally in several foods, including cow's milk, eggs, poultry, and some nuts and seeds. Tryptophan obtained through the diet is usually converted in the brain into 5-HTP, which is then turned into serotonin.

Prozac, Zoloft, imipramine, and other antidepressant drugs work by influencing serotonin levels. Specifically, they belong to a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs). These increase the serotonin level indirectly by blocking its inactivation; that is, they prevent the brain cells from using up serotonin too quickly, causing a deficiency. But by definition, SSRIs interfere with the brain's natural physiological regulatory system, in which cells slow down serotonin secretion.

In contrast, the tryptophan in 5-HTP (a highly purified extract from Griffonia simplicifolia, a West African medicinal plant) provides brain cells with the necessary materials to make more serotonin, without blocking any normal metabolic processes and without the serious side effects of the SSRIs, which include dry mouth, reduced libido, heart palpitations, tremors, and anxiety, explains pharmacist Earl Mindell, R.Ph., Ph.D. He calls 5-HTP the natural Prozac, noting "it does what the SSRIs cannot: increase the cells' production of serotonin to boost serotonin levels."

You would think that simply by eating more tryptophan-rich foods you could provide your brain with all it needs to produce more serotonin. But there's a catch.

There is a constant struggle between tryptophan and other amino acids (e.g., tyrosine, phenylalanine, leucine, methionine, and histidine) to gain access to the brain. So, if you start eating a high-protein diet, you increase the blood levels of these competing amino acids and tryptophan levels in the brain actually decrease.

On the other hand, a high-carbohydrate/low-protein diet (or a big serving of pastries or pasta) causes the release of extra insulin, which wipes out the competing amino acids and allows more tryptophan to get into the brain. Taking tryptophan as a supplement avoids both horns of this dilemma.

The typical recommended dosage of 5-HTP for improving the symptoms of "serotonin deficiency syndrome" is 25-50 mg daily, although Dr. Mindell recommends two 50 mg capsules daily, provided they're not taken with other antidepressants or monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors. Higher daily dosages (over 100 mg) could cause some side effects, including mild nausea. Vitamin B6 should also be taken on the same day as 5-HTP because it is necessary for converting 5-HTP into serotonin.

Article by John Anderson

(Reprint, "Alternative Medicine" magazine, Issue 25)

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