Serotonin is made in the body from the amino acid1, tryptophan. Tryptophan is found in the diet in meat, fish and seeds. It is is converted to 5 HTP in the liver which is then converted to serotonin. In the pineal gland, serotonin converts to melatonin, which helps us sleep.
Serotonin can be increased by taking either tryptophan or 5 HTP as a supplement. If you are very stressed, tryptophan can be converted to glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter2, so not really desirable3. Since serotonin stimulates peristalsis, taking 5 HTP can stimulate this too much resulting in diarrhoea. 5HTP can also cause heart problems. So if you intend to try these natural supplements, start cautiously.
There is something slightly odd about tryptophan in that it competes for uptake with other amino acids released from the dietary protein – but loses. This means that this type of supplementation is timing dependant. If it is decided to take tryptophan to improve mood, then this is best taken away from meals or with a carbohydrate snack, such as fruit. This then ensures that the amino acid is not competing for uptake.
The conversion of serotonin to melatonin explains why taking a melatonin supplement can work to improve quality of sleep. Using melatonin can help overcome jet lag since it will enable the ability to fall asleep quickly at night.
To assume that all depression is going to be cured by increasing serotonin in the brain is making a big assumption. In fact low levels of another neurotransmitter, dopamine, is equally implicated in causing depression. More on dopamine another time. For now, the next blog will be on how to raise serotonin without using either natural or pharmaceutical supplements. And I will cover the best way of all to try to balance out the brain chemicals.
- Proteins from the diet are broken down in the stomach to component parts called amino acids and peptides [↩]
- There are many neurotransmitters. Glutamate is very common and helps us concentrate, but is also a nervous neurotransmitter, and this is why raising it further is not so good [↩]
- I heard this from Robert Rakowski in a lecture of his I attended. Annoyingly I cannot find reference to this elsewhere – which could mean I misheard him or, more likely, he is ahead of the game and what he has learnt is not yet common knowledge [↩]