Have you ever had feelings of hopelessness, where the future looks black and life may not seem worth living, without any real cause? If this occurs in the fall or winter and improves in the spring, you may be one of the more than 25% of Americans suffering from a special sensitivity to the natural decrease in sunlight during the changing seasons. The percentage of sufferers is higher in northern states like Michigan. Technically this disorder is known as “seasonal affective disorder,” or SAD. SAD is a well-documented recurrent mood disorder associated with periods of low light during the winter months. It often takes the form of depressed mood, especially in the evening, with increased sleeping, extreme lethargy, increased appetite, and weight gain. The cause of SAD is not well understood, but the most promising hypothesis involves the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Amino Acids and the Brain
Neurotransmitters are the emotion generators in your brain. Some of the names of the major neurotransmitters will likely be familiar to you: serotonin, GABA, dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. The neurotransmitter we will focus on here is serotonin (sometimes seen as 5-HTP). When you’re high in serotonin, you feel positive, confident, flexible and easy going. When you’re low in serotonin you tend to experience sleep disturbances, negative and obsessive thoughts and irritability.
In humans, (and animals), serotonin is made from the amino acid L-tryptophan. Serotonin supplemented orally does not cross the blood brain barrier, so it does not have an effect on mood or emotions. However, tryptophan and its metabolite 5-HTP, from which serotonin is built, can cross the blood brain barrier and work to enhance your mood and emotions. Ingested L-tryptophan or 5-HTP acts to produce serotonin, even in individuals who don’t generate much serotonin on their own. This makes it a more efficient way to elevate levels of serotonin than using a product that acts as a serotonin enhancer, like Prozac, Paxil, or Zoloft. (For an interesting “coincidence” regarding Prozac and L-tryptophan, check out my blog at http://modernnaturopath.blogspot.com.)
Made from an African bean, the nutrient 5-HTP, (5-hydroxy-tryptophan), can be found in almost any health food store. It’s the first go-to solution for most low-serotonin problems. Your body normally can make its own 5-HTP to convert to serotonin, but only if it has enough tryptophan from food. When you supplement with 5-HTP, your serotonin production will no longer be dependent on the tryptophan from food sources. Studies for depression have shown 5-HTP to be so effective it repeatedly matched or outperformed many of the most established antidepressant drugs without the negative side effects. In one study, 5-HTP had fewer side effects than the placebo!
L-Tryptophan is also available as a supplement and the research is equally as impressive as that on 5-HTP. In addition to being a building block for serotonin, tryptophan can also be used to make niacin, an important B vitamin.
When amino acid therapy doesn’t help, the herb St. John’s wort, (hypericum perforatum) may. This herb helps to raise serotonin levels, and outsells Prozac as an antidepressant in Germany. St. John’s wort must be taken for several weeks to months before you can see the benefits of decreased anxiety and tension, mood elevation and stabilization.
Dietary Friends and Foe
Tryptophan is found in high protein foods like turkey, beef, pork, dairy products, chicken, and eggs. Wild game, such as venison, will be much higher in important amino acids than farm-raised meats because wild animals graze on grasses and other plants. If you are a vegetarian, you will naturally be at a greater risk of developing low tryptophan levels. The best vegetarian sources of tryptophan are foods such as nutritional yeast, milk products, nuts, seeds, bananas, and pumpkin. These foods, however, contain much less tryptophan than meat.
There are several known enemies to serotonin production including stimulants like coffee, ephedra, diet pills and cocaine; and aspartame, (NutraSweet), which contains a substance that converts to stimulating neurotransmitters and nutrients that compete with serotonin.
Serotonin is one of the few body chemicals that are stimulated by light. How you feel may vary depending on the type and amount of light available during
different seasons. Symptoms significantly increase during the fall and winter when the angle of the sun drops, usually sometime after August 15. Serotonin levels drop along with it.
You can raise your serotonin levels any time of the year. At least half of SAD sufferers respond well to bright lamp therapy. Natural sunlight ranges from 2,000 lux (standard unit of illumination) on a cloudy day, to 100,000 lux on a clear summer day. Many of us spend most of our days indoors getting less than 100 lux a day!
Being exposed to bright natural or artificial light during the day may raise your mood by increasing your serotonin levels, but only if the light gets bright enough. It’s important not to have glasses or contacts on. Try to have your sessions before 3 pm, as bright light is known to suppress sleep. Start with ten to fifteen minutes under your lamp and increase as needed. Make sure the light can reach your pupils while you read, talk, or work on your computer, but don’t look directly at the light to avoid damaging your eyes. Aim for about 2,000 lux or more.
Interestingly, exposure to bright light during the day not only improves your emotional outlook; it also helps you sleep. Bright light in the morning decreases your daytime levels of the hibernation-and-sleep-promoting brain chemical melatonin, but will raise your nighttime levels, helping you sleep. Poor sleepers with SAD respond best of all to light therapy.
Move your Body
Ever notice you feel better after you’ve been hiking, skiing, or working out? Exercise raises your serotonin stores as well. When your muscles work, even during moderate exercise, they put in a call for amino acids to repair damaged muscle. Your bloodstream always carries an assortment of amino acids for these situations and delivers them quickly to the muscles in need. That’s true for all amino acids except one – tryptophan- the only one that can be used by your brain to make serotonin. While the other amino acids are being delivered to muscles, tryptophan gets a free ride though the blood-brain barrier. Once through, it converts into 5-HTP, creating an instant burst of short-term happiness.
SAD is a common mood disorder nationwide, even more common in the U.P. because of the northern location. If you’re feeling down, it’s important to check in with your health care provider before instituting any supplement, exercise, dietary or light therapy regimen. Many other conditions or medication side effects may create the same kinds of signs and symptoms as SAD. It’s important to know the state of your thyroid and adrenal glands, as well as your sex hormone levels. In addition to the supplements mentioned above, other vitamins and minerals are crucial for the formation of your brain’s neurotransmitters. Don’t go through another winter with the blahs. See your medical provider to create a plan that is right for you to lift that dark cloud and get living again.
Jessica Nagelkirk was a medical student at National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon at the time of this writing and graduated as a Naturopathic Physician (ND).
Adapted with permission from the Winter 2011-2012 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.