A vast majority of anti-depressant drugs, natural treatments for depression, and much of how the mainstream medical institution views mental health is hinged on one theory: serotonin is the "happy" neurotransmitter. There are thousands of books, blogs, articles and podcasts about increasing serotonin levels to combat depression. But what if our ideas about serotonin are fundamentally wrong?
Questioning mainstream medicine is never fun or easy. It also doesn't tend to make you many friends. But I still managed to find myself in the mess of detangling the serotonin web, trying to sift fact from fiction, reality from hyperbole. And with good reason. I had my own personal experience to reckon with.
Tryptophan, 5-HTP and Serotonin: My Path to Happy?
Mood issues were one of the main reasons I started researching health and nutrition a few years ago. I found right away that most natural health gurus gushed about serotonin's "happy" and "feel-good" benefits. There was a general consensus that serotonin deficiency is a rampant condition that causes everything from depression to insomnia. The conclusion? Most folks need more serotonin. And, hey, I must be one of those folks.
Tryptophan and 5-HTP supplements are all the rage in the natural health community, since these are used by the body to make serotonin. It makes sense: they increase serotonin, and serotonin makes you happy. And who doesn't want to be happy?
It all sounded well and good to me. So off I went to procure my first bottle of 5-HTP. I followed the dosage instructions of a popular mood therapy book, and went about my life, waiting for the happiness to set in.
Unfortunately, that's not quite what happened.
Nightmare on Serotonin Street
It was subtle at first. Just a general brain fog, a touch of apathy. My sleep wasn't improving as much I wanted, so I referred back to my mood book and upped my 5-HTP dosage to the next recommended level.
That's when a stronger sense of apathy set in. I felt unnaturally listless and helpless. Almost like my real self was suddenly trapped in a thick fog in my mind, unable to reach the surface.
And for the first time in my life, I was exhibiting definite signs of depression. I had gone from occasional mood swings and low moods to checking off all the boxes in a depression questionnaire!
Something wasn't right, but I couldn't put my finger on it yet. After all, I was following recommendations for raising my serotonin, which was supposed to stop depression. There was only one theory about serotonin and therefore only one answer: I must need more serotonin.
Following that line of logic, I raised my dosage of 5-HTP again (though still within recommended levels). It seemed so harmless at the time, but it wasn't.
Within 15 minutes of my first dose, a feeling of intense panic set in. Not a thing in my life had changed in those 15 minutes, and yet suddenly it felt like my entire world was falling apart. My heart was pounding, my palms were sweating, my mind was racing. I genuinely felt I must be losing my mind.
After an hour or so, as the feeling slowly began to fade, as my heart rate returned to normal, a very small but important thought popped into my head: "This started when I took the 5-HTP."
To test this budding theory, I stopped taking 5-HTP completely (to be honest, I was so freaked out I chucked my bottle right into the trash can). I felt much better within hours and completely normal within a few days. And in finding this one answer, I had opened a whole new jar of questions about serotonin.
Getting Some Answers... and Even More Questions
It's funny to think that only by blindly following mainstream ideas about serotonin could I come to a place where I dared to question them.
A few months after the 5-HTP incident, I dared to experiment with tryptophan and endured a similar reaction (though I caught on earlier so it didn't escalate into crazy scary). That's when I started seriously questioning what I'd read about 5-HTP and tryptophan, which led to questioning modern ideas about serotonin and antidepressants as well.
I've learned a lot, but I definitely don't have all the answers... in fact, I've found just as many questions as answers along the way. But even without all the answers, this is too important of a subject to sit on the back burner. After all, our mental health is at stake.
There is a lot more to say on the subject, and I've barely scratched the surface today. So it seems I'm destined to do a series of serotonin posts, and I will be posting more on the topics of tryptophan, serotonin syndrome and high serotonin symptoms in the weeks to come.
Update: I've written more in my series on serotonin! Check out Part 2 and Part 3 if you want to know more.