The Mood Cure: Amino Acid Therapy

In a previous post, I wrote about how learning that I have the MTHFR mutation (a genetic deficiency that impacts the processing of B vitamins), and subsequently treating it, brought me halfway back to life. This is the other half.

In addition to negatively impacting the processing and absorption of folate, the MTHFR mutation can impact how you process amino acids. Aminos can boost levels of certain neurotransmitters that are big players in mood and cognition, and there’s a solid body of research that backs using them to treat fatigue, depression, and anxiety.  The science resonated with me, and I rarely hesitate to use myself as a guinea pig when there’s something to be gained and not much to lose, so I bought a book and got started.

In Julia Ross’s The Mood Cure, she relates her experience as a psychotherapist, using amino acids as treatment in the clinic she ran in partnership with a neuroscientist. This book is the first I’ve seen that doesn’t lump all kinds of low moods together. There’s a four-part assessment designed to get at what affects you personally: depression/anxiety; energy/focus; stress; or sensitivity. They are not mutually exclusive – it’s possible to be feeling any combination, and even all of them. How you score on the assessment points to which neurotransmitters you’re deficient in, and which amino acids you can try for relief.

My scores on the assessment indicated I had three deficiencies:

Serotonin. This is probably the most well-known neurotransmitter and the one worked on by many antidepressant medications. Lack of it famously causes low mood and carb cravings, but I was surprised by some of the other symptoms on the list, like hating hot weather, being a night owl, or being diagnosed with fibromyalgia or TMJ. To boost my serotonin, I began taking 5-HTP. I found it to have an immediate impact on my afternoon and evening carb cravings, and, strangely, it shut off the voice in my head that is always nattering on about what I should or shouldn’t eat. THAT was worth the price of the bottle all by itself. I take another serotonin booster, tryptophan, right before bed, to help me sleep through the night. For some reason, melatonin has never worked for me, and the herb valerian makes me feel groggy the next day. But with tryptophan, I have restful sleep with no morning hangover. I had hoped I could eliminate the 5-HTP and just go with the tryptophan, but the results were not good. Tryptophan is a mood-booster for many people, just not for me.

There’s a great deal of evidence for a link between mood and gut health, specifically surrounding serotonin. In my case, these supplements greatly improved my bloating and my snail-slow digestion, but I have a friend whose stomach issues were exacerbated by tryptophan (after I raved about it, naturally), so tread carefully if you try it.

Catecholamines. “Cats” are responsible for your oomph – your focus, motivation, enthusiasm, energy. All those things I didn’t have any of. There are several amino acids that serve as catecholamine boosters, and I tried L-tyrosine and L-phenylalanine before settling on the one that worked best for me, DLPA – which is a combination of both the D- and L- forms of phenylalanine. I knew these worked right away. Right. Away. No ‘take this and wait six weeks.’ This is the one I never forget to take in the morning, because 10-20 minutes after swallowing it on an empty stomach, it takes me from stumbling around my kitchen like Frankenstein’s monster on Ambien, to an alert and functional human able to answer questions, successfully push the button on the coffee machine, and smile at my family. This (along with L-methylfolate to treat my MTHFR) is the sunshine that rolls back my brain fog and makes work, and life, an easier and more productive experience.

GABA. Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is one of our natural tranquilizers. When I took this assessment, I was about a year past a time in my life when I had experienced unrelenting stress for about 18 months, due to a difficult family situation. It was well in the past, and yet I didn’t feel recovered, or over it. At all. What I felt was that it had burned me out so badly that afterward I was never the same. Ross’s chapter on what she calls ‘adrenal burnout’ was a revelation – filled with an additional assessment to find where you are on the adrenal burnout continuum, and real strategies to support deep recovery. GABA supplementation is only one of these. Most often I will take GABA as a ‘rescue remedy’ if I feel stressed or anxious (its calming effects are felt in about an hour), but recently I’ve started to take it regularly when going through life’s stressful patches. As a bonus, the 5-HTP I take for low serotonin also helps with stress and adrenal burnout.

I didn’t score as being deficient in the fourth neurotransmitter, endorphins. People who do are often highly sensitive, feeling life’s pain a little deeper, a little longer, than most. But the supplement I take as a catecholamine booster, DLPA, is also recommended by Ross as a booster for endorphins. So, hey – a belt AND suspenders.

Ross’s book is encyclopedic. She provides the science behind her claims. She walks you through the dosage and timing of supplements (this is important, as they can cancel each other out, and some need to be taken with or without food to be effective), troubleshoots problems and lays out a nutritional plan to support your supplementation efforts. There are extra chapters on hormones and thyroid, as these can often cause symptoms very similar to neurotransmitter deficiency. If they are the culprits behind your blahs, the amino acids may not help much if you don’t address those issues too. On the up side – it’s everything I needed. On the down side…it’s a lot. I found myself getting off in the weeds trying to do everything perfectly, and getting overwhelmed.

Ultimately, improvement won out over perfection. I was able to imperfectly implement some of her lifestyle suggestions along with the supplementation. I already live by some of her nutrition advice, but certain things were just nonstarters. For example, I am not going to give up my treasured coffee or tea, or an evening glass of good whiskey; they bring me too much pleasure. I can, however, enjoy them all in moderation.

And then when everything is working really well and I feel good, I get spotty about taking the supplements and soon enough start to wonder how I ended up laid out flat under this big boulder. Fortunately, once I restart everything it doesn’t take long until the boulder rolls off and I’m on my feet again.

If you’re going to experiment with amino acid therapy, read Ross’s book and do it armed with the information you need (about yourself, and about the aminos) to do it successfully. If you’re on psych meds, check with your doctor before proceeding. Remember this represents only my experience, and your mileage may vary.

Stronger at the Broken Places

Kintsugi, or Kintsukiroi, is a Japanese art form. The artist repairs broken pieces of pottery with silver or gold. The finished pieces then become more beautiful, and more valuable, than the vessel was before being broken. I’m fascinated by this art form, and by the resonant truth it brings to life.

Profoundly difficult experiences have a way of making us feel broken. Kintsugi shows us that broken and damaged are not the same; that having to be put back together does not make us less than we once were. On the contrary, we become something else entirely. Something singular. Something rare. Stronger at the broken places.

It reminds me that there is something better than perfection. Without having been broken, we would never have the wondrous, sacred experience of repairing ourselves – of being both the artist, and the vessel.

The image above is an example of Kintsugi, used with the kind permission of Morty Borchar, Lakeside Pottery Studios. Their beautiful work can be found at www.lakesidepottery.com.