This is Part 2 of a series on high serotonin. Check out Part 1 and Part 3 if you want to learn more.
After my disturbing experience with 5-HTP and tryptophan supplements (read about that here), I started thinking it was time to question my ideas about serotonin. Although it's known as the "happy" neurotransmitter, I quickly discovered other people have had experiences similar to mine. I started researching high serotonin symptoms and the effects of too much serotonin.
And that's when I found out a very disturbing side effect of high serotonin: increased risk of suicide.
Talk about a huge light bulb moment. Is this why pharmaceutical antidepressants can cause suicidal thoughts? Obviously, anxiety and suicidal thoughts are supposed to be what antidepressants are treating. Then why are they causing the very problems they are supposed to solve?
The answer is simple: our ideas about serotonin are wrong. Dead wrong.
Serotonin Is Not So "Happy" After All
Although I did find that others had experienced the same 5-HTP side effects as I did, I quickly found out how few professionals acknowledged the problem. Books, articles, websites... they all said the same old thing. Serotonin makes you happy. Serotonin is the depression antidote. We all need some more of that good ole serotonin.
Everyone seemed to know about the potentially life-threatening risks of anti-depressant drugs, but no one dared to implicate serotonin. I was asking a question that no one wanted to answer.
Well, not exactly no one. Dr. Ray Peat was one researcher in the field of biology that publicly questioned mainstream medicine's ideas about serotonin. He even proposed that serotonin could cause the very problems it's supposed to solve: depression, apathy, anxiety, etc.
I had heard of Ray Peat, but some of his ideas sounded kooky to me, so up until that point I had largely ignored all of his work. But now I was listening. And boy did I get an earful.
Here are a few interesting quotes about serotonin from Dr. Peat:
- In hibernating animals, the stress of a declining food supply causes increased serotonin production. In humans and animals that don’t hibernate, the stress of winter causes very similar changes. Serotonin lowers temperature by decreasing the metabolic rate. Tryptophan and melatonin are also hypothermic. In the winter, more thyroid is needed to maintain a normal rate of metabolism.
- Overdose with the serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or with 5-hydroxytryptophan [or 5-HTP], which has effects similar to serotonin, can cause the sometimes fatal "serotonin syndrome." Symptoms can include tremors, altered consciousness, poor coordination, cardiovascular disturbances, and seizures. Treatment with anti-serotonin drugs can alleviate the symptoms and usually can prevent death. [Note to self: super glad I stopped taking 5-HTP.]
- The serotonin syndrome has been reported in users of St. John’s wort as an antidepressant.
- Although several amino acids can be acutely or chronically toxic, even lethal, when too much is eaten, tryptophan is the only amino acid that is also carcinogenic. (It can also produce a variety of toxic metabolites, and it is very susceptible to damage by radiation.) Since tryptophan is the precursor of serotonin, the amount of tryptophan in the diet can have important effects on the way the organism responds to stress, and the way it develops, adapts, and ages.
- Decreasing tryptophan or decreasing serotonin improves learning and alertness, while increased serotonin impairs learning.
- Serotonin's contribution to high blood pressure is well established. It activates the adrenal cortex both directly and through activation of the pituitary. It stimulates the production of both cortisol and aldosterone.
Reading Dr. Peat's ideas on serotonin provided some answers, but it also led to even more questions.
- If serotonin deficiency doesn't cause depression, then what does?
- How do we treat mood disorders outside of increasing serotonin?
- Why do tryptophan, 5-HTP and St. John's Wort make some people feel terrible (like me), but make others feel better?
- How did our ideas about serotonin get turned so upside down?
I plan to answer these questions (to the best of my ability) in Part 3 of this series. Stay tuned.