Amino Acids in Mental Wellness
If you are like me, you will always be searching for new ways to give yourself an extra edge and make continued improvements to your health. I have tried a million and one hacks for more energy, to perform better in the gym, to maintain my waistline (an ever more challenging escapade at almost 44), increase my antioxidant intake, fatty acid intake, enhance the nutrient density of my diet. You name it.
The one thing I took for granted though was my mental wellness as generally, with the exception of becoming slightly more cantankerous with commuters and shoppers as I get older, my demeanour, outlook and mental state has always been bright. I have always been driven. Focused. Up beat and positive.
Then, the world went into perpetual lockdown. The first one, the sun was out, there was a sense of national unity and togetherness almost. No big deal. The second one in November, barely noticed it to be honest. Then…..the January one. This absolutely beat me into submission and drove me to the darkest places of my soul that I have ever been. Hands down.
I took my mental wellbeing for granted. Now, to tackle this I have been doing everything I can from an environmental and experiential point of view. I stopped consuming the news, started making the effort to be out in nature, meditate, bring as many positive environmental and experiential factors in as I can. But you all know me by now….the one thing I knew I could crack was what was happening on a biochemical level, and nutrition is a major key in this battle. Always is.
Now when it comes to mental health, anxiety, depression and other common mental health challenges I do believe that this does need to be treated and managed on multiple levels such as environmental, experiential, self care, nutrition, and where necessary, pharmaceutically too, as our brains are multi faceted and are influenced by multiple stimuli. As I am not a shrink or a neuropharmacologist I am going to stay in my lane for the rest of this article and keep it relevant to my special field and make that my contribution to this multifaceted picture.
Over the years I have written a huge amount on the likes go Omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and Magnesium in the context of mental health, so Im not going to repeat myself here, there is plenty out there from me covering that. I want to talk about a new area that I have been looking into and trying and that ultimately have really helped me cope with the factors I have zero control over. And that is amino acids!
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. In that context they are assembled together in a billion and one (thats not precise, just hyperbole) different sequences to make all imaginable proteins. They also individually can work as precursors to different substances in the body, like for example - neurotransmitters!!!
So let's just recap on those for a second. Messages are sent through the brain in the form of electrical impulses, but the cells in the brain and nervous system do not touch and the electrical signal cannot jump the gap between the cells. Therefore the chemical message needs to be turned into a chemical message, to relay the signal across the gap from one neutron (nerve cell) to another. These chemical messages are sent by neurotransmitters. Different neurotransmitters relay different messages so can affect everything from our mood, to our ability to learn, to how quickly we react to a pain signal or a threat.
So amino acids can become neurotransmitters. This scope is really quite wide but purely to focus on the challenge that I was facing at this time - deep depression and anxiety, I want to focus on two specifically. 5HTP and DLPA.
The amino acid Tryptophan is the chemical precursor (building block) to the neurotransmitter serotonin. This widely discussed neurotransmitter plays many roles in the body, depending where it is found. It is important to know that its role is dependant upon location. In the gut serotonin regulates peristalsis which is the rhythmical contractions of the gut wall that moves our gut contents along to its final destination. In the blood it regulates platelet activity and clotting. In the skeleton it helps regulate bone mineral density. But most importantly, in the brain serotonin regulates mood, and specifically helps us feel good, happy and uplifted. Serotonin is a common target for antidepressant drugs, with one particularly widely used group called SSRI’s or ‘Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors’. I will explain what that means. I mentioned earlier that neurotransmitters are there to relay the electrical signal between one nerve cell and another. Well, they are stored at the ends of our nerve cells in little bubbles called vesicles. These vesicles kick the neurotransmitter out into the space between the two cells as needed. The neurotransmitter then attaches to a receptor that recognises it on the neighbouring neutron, and carries the signal on. The vesicles that store the neurotransmitters will rapidly take up any excess back in to the cell it originated from to avoid any wastage. SSRI’s - re uptake inhibitors - greatly reduce this re uptake from happening so as logic should infer, the more serotonin is freely around to attach to serotonin receptors, then the greater serotonin led response is delivered. Which is exactly what happens and they do work, although the side effects to me are a little worrying. So what if there was another way to raise serotonin.
The amino acid tryptophan is the natural building block of serotonin. It has to go through quite a lot of chemical conversion to finally get converted into serotonin. The final stage of this conversion before serotonin, is the manufacture of a substance called 5-hydroxy tryptophan (5HTP), which then converts straight into serotonin. Tryptophan as a supplement is not available, but this greatly converted form, 5HTP is. Supplementation of 5HTP can over a fairly short period of time notably increase serotonin and the upside of that is raised mood and improved sleep as serotonin turns into melatonin after dark and sets the clock for us.
You can increase intake of proteins in general, especially fish and poultry to get more tryptophan into your diet, but for a more targeted effect, a 5HTP supplement between 200 - 400 mg a day, starting at the lower end. Caution do NOT take with SSRI’s, and if you are on any antidepressant medication, speak to your doctor first!!
The next amino acid, and one that was new to me in terms of this context of use at least, was DLPA or D L Phenylalanine. This particular amino acid converts over into another called tyrosine which then converts into dopamine and noradrenaline. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is involved in motivation, learning, attention, behaviour and cognition, and pleasure. When levels get low, it can feel like the life has been drained from us. That feeling of no motivation to even get out of bed, no desire to go anywhere or do anything, and nothing in life seems particularly pleasurable or motivating at all. Life just become lacklustre and the magic and sparkle just goes!! Noradrenaline is something that when in the brain and nervous system acts as a neurotransmitter. It is involved in attention, focus and taking action, as well as playing a role in the fight or flight response. If either of these get depleted, the result is that feeling that everything is too difficult and that you just don’t want to go anywhere or do anything.
That combination of 5HTP and DLPA has proved a genuine game changer for me. Sure, I am taking a multitude of other steps to protect my mental wellbeing in these trying times, but the results I have had from really tapping into neurochemistry via nutrition has been staggering!!