According to an article in the New Scientist, antidepressants are meant to make things better. But the increasing reliance on them in the UK could be a public health disaster in the making, campaigners are warning. Evidence is growing that people struggle to stop taking antidepressants once they have started, and that the drugs could even prolong symptoms of low mood and trigger other mental health problems 1.
Four million Britons now take antidepressants with 65 million prescriptions a year – 25% up in the past three years - leading to concerns that doctors are handing over the prescriptions too easily. The UK now has the seventh highest prescribing rate for antidepressants in the western world and twice as many people are now taking drugs than they were ten years ago. The World Health Organisation is now warning that prescription levels in many countries are "through the roof" as people struggle to deal with the challenges of modern living 2.
Is there an alternative to these drugs and does it work? The answer is yes, and it is in the form of 5-HTP.
What is 5HTP – how does it work
You have probably heard of serotonin, which is a chemical that has a wide variety of functions in the human body. It is sometimes called the happy chemical, because it contributes to wellbeing and happiness.
The scientific name for serotonin is 5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT. Serotonin is used to transmit messages between nerve cells, it is thought to be active in constricting smooth muscles, and it contributes to wellbeing and happiness, among other things. As the precursor for melatonin, it helps regulate the body's sleep-wake cycles and the internal clock.
It is made from tryptophan, a simple amino acid found in protein. The ability to turn tryptophan into serotonin depends on a whole host of nutrients and processes. Tryptophan is first converted to 5-hydroxytryptophan or 5-HTP, which is then converted to serotonin (5-HT) in the brain.
Supplementing with 5-HTP
Although supplementing tryptophan itself has proven an effective blues buster, even more effective is supplementing with 5-HTP as it is one step closer to being converted into serotonin. It is derived from an African bean called griffonia. The first study proving the mood-boosting power of 5-HTP was carried out in the 1970’s in Japan, under the direction of Professor Isamu Sano of the Osaka University Medical School. He gave 107 patients 50-300mg of 5-HTP per day, and within two weeks, more than half experienced improvements in their symptoms. This study was repeated by other researchers who also found that 69% of patients improved their mood.
29 studies have shown that people who supplemented 5-HTP achieved overall better results in a decrease in depression symptoms compared to those achieved by using antidepressant drugs, with a fraction of the side effects. In head to head trials compared to SSRI anti-depressant drugs it is, at least, as good3. Given that 5-HTP is less expensive and produces significantly fewer side effects, it is extraordinary that psychiatrists virtually never prescribe.
Only a third of people get relief from anti-depressants. A study last year gave fifteen women with major depression who had not responded to SSRI anti-depressants 100mg of 5-HTP (together with creatine) and reported a 60% improvement for the group overall in depression rating after 8 weeks, which effectively means most would not be classified as depressed at the end of 8 weeks.3
Chemical ways that serotonin can be raised
It is serotonin’s mood-boosting effect that is exploited in antidepressant drugs, called SSRIs (or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Why then are nutrients not prescribed instead of SSRIs? The answer is that although nutrients provide the raw materials to make things like neurotransmitters, they can’t be patented and are therefore not profitable as medicines. SSRIs, however, work in a different way, by blocking the brain’s ability to break down serotonin; but because they are man-made chemical’s they are therefore patentable. The result is that the drugs, which are highly profitable to the companies who make them, are marketed as the answer to depression and widely prescribed in spite of their high cost.
The side effects are depressing
What’s really worrying about antidepressant drugs are their side effects, which include at least a doubling of the risk of suicide, sexual dysfunction, insomnia, nausea, diarrhoea, sweating and drowsiness, a possible increased risk of heart disease and, recently, some concerns about negative effects of babies in pregnant women taking antidepressants. All in all, they’re a bad deal.
A fourth generation of antidepressants is largely replacing the SSRIs as their patents run out but they also come with similar side-effects including constipation, dry mouth and dizziness.
Natural steps to happiness
So, if you think you need to improve your mood, the easiest and more natural way is to take 5-HTP in a supplement form.
You could try a formulation like my Mood Food which as been designed to help support the chemicals in the brain. It combines specially selected B vitamins which play a key role in normal brain function and 5-HTP to help improve your mood in a more natural way.
3. Kious BM et al, 'An Open-Label Pilot Study of Combined Augmentation With Creatine Monohydrate and 5-Hydroxytryptophan for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor- or Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitor-Resistant Depression in Adult Women', J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2017 Oct;37(5):578-583