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The Wrong Way to Boost Serotonin

Tryptophan is the precursor to the “happiness hormone” serotonin, so why not take tryptophan supplements to improve mood and relieve symptoms of depression?

August 2, 2012 |
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Acknowledgements

Images thanks to Esquilo, Crispy Waffle, Jynto, and Neutrality via Wikimedia Commons.

Transcript

The neurotransmitter serotonin, often referred to as the “happiness hormone,” is found in plant foods, but serotonin doesn’t cross the blood brain barrier, so it shouldn’t affect your mood no matter how much you eat.

The precursor to serotonin, however, what your brain makes serotonin out of, is an amino acid called tryptophan, and there’s a transport protein in the brain that plucks tryptophan out of the bloodstream and so what you eat can end up affecting your mood. Back in the 70’s they did tryptophan depletion experiments where you give people specially concocted tryptophan deficient diets, and indeed their mood suffers, they get irritable, annoyed, angry, depressed.

Likewise you can give people tryptophan pills to improve their mood, and indeed it came a popular dietary supplement, until… people started dying from something called eosinophilia–myalgia syndrome, an incurable, debilitating and sometimes fatal flu-like neurological condition caused by the ingestion of tryptophan supplements. May have been due to some unknown impurity, but better safe than sorry. Instead of supplements, there are dietary strategies one can use to improve mood. [, which we'll talk about next]

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Kerry Skinner.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

This is the second of a four-part series (mentioned in Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death) on natural ways to boost serotonin in the brain. Yesterday's video-of-the-day Human Neurotransmitters in Plants noted that plants themselves can contain serotonin. Tomorrow's video-of-the-day A Better Way to Boost Serotonin will talk about getting dietary tryptophan into the brain, which we'll then optimize in Best Way to Boost SerotoninAvoidance of soda andartificial colors may also improve behavior in children and adolescents. I've gotdozens of videos on supplements--the good, the bad, the ugly and the just plainsnake oil. Unfortunately, too many people rely on the questionable advice from health food store employees (see my four-part video series starting here). If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

For more context, check out my associated blog posts: How To Boost Serotonin NaturallyTop 10 Most Popular Videos of the Year, Saffron vs. Prozac for Depression, and Treating Parkinson's Disease with Diet

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    This is the second of a four-part series (mentioned in Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death) on natural ways to boost serotonin in the brain. Yesterday’s video-of-the-day Human Neurotransmitters in Plants noted that plants themselves can contain serotonin. Tomorrow’s video-of-the-day A Better Way to Boost Serotonin will talk about getting dietary tryptophan into the brain, which we’ll then optimize in Best Way to Boost Serotonin. Avoidance of soda and artificial colors may also improve behavior in children and adolescents. I’ve got dozens of videos on supplements–the good, the bad, the ugly and the just plain snake oil. Unfortunately, too many people rely on the questionable advice from health food store employees (see my four-part video series starting here). If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

    • HemoDynamic, M.D.

      Elpool,
      Dr G. must admire Sly Stallone, because this is an, “Avalance of ‘psycho’ Thrills” with his cliffhangers.
      ;-}

      • Elpoo

        I could totally hang like that off of a cliff ledge with one arm carrying 75 pounds of guns and ammo. I could. I just don’t want to is all.

  • Elpool

    You and your cliff hangers! :-)

  • AlexanderBerenyi

    I read that tyrosine and phenylalanine compete with tryptophan for absorption. Apparently because of this, some healthcare practitioners believe that food
    sources of tryptophan do not cause a significant enough increase in
    blood levels of tryptophan to produce therapeutic results—so therefore it ought to be taken as a supplement to increase its
    blood levels.

    http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=103

  • Bgrune

    Since 2002 when the ban on tryptophan was lifted there have been no cases of EMS liked to it. It is unlikely that you could achieve therapeutic levels of trytophan through diet.

  • Geoffreylevens

    Love what you do and this particular video I find a bit disingenuous or something. It is quite well known that the toxicity/deaths from tryptophan were caused by manufacturer contamination. One of the few, large manufacturing companies, Showa Denko K.K., Tokyo, had contaminated their fermentation tanks. This was jumped on by the FDA to crush the tryptophan supplement market just as the market for Prozac (approved just 2 years prior) was really taking off. Likely no connection but still, makes me wonder. It is not as if it was a big mystery why tryptophan use was associated w/ EMS. It was not the tryptophan, it was sloppy manufacturing and contamination.  Should we avoid lettuce because it has been sold contaminated.

    I totally agree that supplementing is 2nd choice at best with diet as 1st line treatment. But I certainly would not call tryptophan pills “the wrong way” nor would I imply that they are particularly dangerous.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Smith/100002609418447 John Smith

      You may be right but it looks like there isn’t a consensus. See  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tryptophan#Tryptophan_supplements_and_EMS

    • Allieb

      This is not correct. There have been cases since the disaster just check the Mayo Clinic site or the CDC. Let me tell you, it’s NOT WORTH IT! I would give anything to have my life back.

      Yes, Showa Denko KK produced contaminated product but it was because they eliminated one of the charcoal filtering processes in order to produce more bulk product…make more money. There’s nothing in place to stop this kind of disaster from happening again, with any supplement.

  • http://poxacuatl.wordpress.com/ Strix

    I totally agree — “Better safe than sorry.” I would rather err on the side of caution *especially* with supplements, when in doubt.
     

    • HemoDynamic, M.D.

      When in doubt–throw it out!
      ;-}

  • SJ M.D.

    History tells us that isolating one single factor from food can be dangerous (E-vitamin, betacarotene) - I wote for the package!

  • Nancywb947

    I am really intersted in your information but hate the video format.Would it be possible to include a written article with the information together with the video for those who prefer tro get information via print? Thanks.

    • Jhellen

      I agree.  I have a hearing loss, and either need closed captioning or text.  Wish this was possible.

      • http://www.facebook.com/JenniferRuthGreene Jennifer Greene

        Jhellen and Nancywb947: volunteers have begun transcribing Dr. Greger’s videos (in English and languages other than English). If you know anyone who could pitch in with the effort, please point them to these instructions: https://docs.google.com/document/edit?id=1VLQvCUNrC47Yrti861QcH09YesAmY5e-pJgzBQAyBR4

    • beccadoggie10

      Dr. Greger already does this. Read the transcript! It’s right above the Doctor’s Note.

  • Ak42

    I love these videos. Keep them coming! Thank you!

  • Maui

    this is a really old story regarding Tryptophan… Jonathan Wright, MD covered it in great detail about 20 years ago. If memory serves it was a genetically modified strain of Japanese origin that caused the problem having nothing to do with the amino acid.
    That did not however stop the FDA from pulling it off the market in typical Gestapo technique. Were they only so responsive for the myriad drugs they approve!

  • BarbaraCharis

    I have been into nutritional research for 51 years…and personally experiment with food and substances, before recommending or panning them.  I have been using tryptophan for the last two years without a problem…it is a great sleep promoter, when taken at bedtime.  I go to sleep happy and wake up happy on a daily basis…and I am in my late seventies.

    • Syndee1on1

      I have great admiration for Dr. Greger and have followed his work for sometime and appreciate the time and energy he has put into it. But yes, I agree with many of the responses. I personally have never had to take tryptophan, perhaps due to my very healthy, nearly vegan diet, but for those that have a chemical imbalance and benefit from it’s use, more power to them for being smart enough to try it. I’m a certified nutrition consultant and equally important, I worked at a vitamin store for over 10 years and never heard of a negative incident, only positive, while using tryptophan. So while I’m ranting, I’m a bit offended by Dr. Greger’s comments about people that work at health food stores. I learned and experienced so much through the feedback of clients and the training the facility I worked for offered. There maybe exceptions, as there are in many occupations, but I have met and worked with many VERY knowledgable staff at various health food stores that have the utmost level of integrity helping clients improve their health through supplementations.

      • Geoffrey Levens

        I worked for many years in health food stores (including the “big dog” Whole Foods as well as small independent store).  My experience goes both ways. I have encountered quite a few employees who are very knowledgeable and I have also heard truly appalling ignorance being expressed as fact.  I think caveat emptor is always an excellent rule no matter what you are buying and no matter where.  I think it is most important of all when dealing with your own health and how your body is treated and what is going into it.  Sadly, our educational system and media train people to be ignorant sheep rather than to take responsibility and learn what is needed.

      • beccadoggie10

        The health food store I’ve frequented for the past 25 years, has had problems with both past owners, and some employees not knowing the side affects of the “supplements” and herbal remedies they are peddling to customers.

        For example, when I was looking for the essential oil of Calendula, another essential oil was thrust upon me from another part of the marigold, which while fragrant, was toxic if ingested.

        The owner downplayed my comments on the essential oil saying that it was pharmaceutical industry propaganda. This may be partially true. But, where there is smoke, there should be more investigation.

        I did not purchase what she was pushing, and that may have saved my dog’s life. I did bring in information that was on the web site, and was told we cannot believe everything on the web. True. But, we cannot believe everything a salesperson peddles to us either.

        This store owner-sales person died of liver damage, not from drinking, but from ingesting far too many supplements of comfrey, a natural plant which she declared “safe” –she and the industry who trained her.

        Investigate before you buy whether it is food, drugs, or supplements!!! And, it’s okay to walk away.

  • Scott Thompson1

    I agree about having a written article with the video. We’re far out in the country and the video will not play with our extremely slow internet connection.

  • Liviu Deacu

    In Europe 5-HTP is used, could this one be also dangerous?

  • Eagles438

    I took tryptophan supplements which I might say were huge, some twenty seven years ago for a sleep problem.  During that period I experienced a severe gallbladder attack (unusual considering I was only 31yrs old and ate healthy). As a subsequence I lost my gallbladder.  The surgeon said it was so full of large gallstones that it had to be removed.  Shortly after I noticed that the tryptophan tablets were taken off the market!  I believe I lost my gallbladder because of tryptophan! For some people to die because of them, (it is believed), is terrible.

    • GeoffreyLevens

      It is well proven that the problems caused by tryptophan supplements were due to bacterial contamination in manufacture and had nothing at all to do with the tryptophan.  So far as I know, there is also zero connection between tryptophan intake in any form and gallbladder health (aside from it being one the essential ones to consume since we can’t synthesize it).  It is unfortunate that you lost your gallbladder but the stones and surgery had no connection to your taking tryptophan supplements.  Belief is quite different from causality or proof.

      • GeoffreyLevens

        Eagles438, also curious as to what you meant by “healthy diet”?  I would guess that about 95% of people, is asked would say they eat a healthy diet. If you get the actual detail of what they eat, more likely 5% or less actually do so.

  • Allieb

    I was one of the victim’s of L-tryptophan and it scares me to see this product back on the shelves. This is a horrible illness that ruins your life!! 

  • Renee Patton

    I love this site, and I have enjoyed many of these videos, but I must take exception with your assertion about “L-tryptophan supplements” causing those deaths, when the very article in your video stated–as have many of your informed readers below–that those deaths were all linked to ONE source (Showa Denko), which produced the contaminated supplements that caused ALL of the L-tryptophan deaths. Of course, Geoffrey Levens (below) pointed out the Prozac link–and I don’t think that was an accident. Big pharma spends tons of money on lobbying efforts–and the spreading of misleading information in this case caused widespread panic over the supplement, which led to a ban on L-tryptophan–meaning the consumer had fewer choices (especially between supplements or drugs–if you can’t get the supplement, you have to buy the drug–not counting the few educated folks who manage to get decent info on nutrition for countering deficiencies). This gave Prozac a big (unfair, artificially-created) market advantage. Glad the ban has since been lifted. 26 people died from that contaminated supply, but more than 2500 deaths have been linked to Prozac–almost 100x more than the contaminated L-tryptophan supplements! Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

  • beccadoggie10

    Eosinophilia–myalgia syndrome came about with the introduction into the marketplace of genetically engineered L-tryptophan, from a Japanese company.

    Because President Herbert Walker Bush was about to allow GMO foods and drugs into the marketplace, his administration banned all sources of L-tryptophan to save lives, or so they said.

    I’ve had a bottle of L-tryptophan, for decades which I have used sparingly whenever I absolutely cannot get to sleep, and I have never had any adverse health problem related to its ingestion.

    Now, we have myriad of foods and pharmaceuticals whose dna has been altered with antibiotic resistant bacteria, genes from other species, and possibly from other kingdoms, all because scientists can do this. http://www.nature.com/cr/journal/v22/n1/fig_tab/cr2011158ft.html
    And the FDA has a rubber stamped policy that these foods/drugs are not significantly different from any other foods, a policy likely written by Michael Taylor, then a lobbyist now a VP, for Monsanto.

    I don’t trust anything that the U.S. FDA puts out.

    Anyone guess what the health outcomes will be besides death and endocrine disruption?

    • disqus_URuRO073wC

      Buy what you want over the internet if you’re sure it’s safe. If it’s allowed in most countries, but not your own, it may be safe.

      Here in the UK we can buy some things that are banned in the USA but we can’t buy melatonin over the counter.