When we think of amino acids, mood may not be the first thing that comes to mind. After all, they're the building blocks of protein. However, certain aminos, including theanine, tyrosine, tryptophan, and 5-HTP (a derivative of tryptophan), can have calming, energizing, or mood-enhancing effects.
"There are certain neurotransmitters that are kind of like the brake, that make us feel calm, more at ease, and comfortable in our own skin. And there are ones that are like the gas, that make us more alert, focused, and energized," says Steven Ehrlich, NMD, medical director of Solutions Acupuncture and Naturopathic Medicine in Phoenix. "When either the gas or the brake is out of balance, you feel off."
The Benefits of a Holistic Approach
Specific amino acid supplements influence neurotransmitters, but in a gentler way than antidepressant or anti-anxiety drugs. And, they are best used as part of a holistic approach that entails looking beyond the obvious symptoms to treat the underlying source of the problem.
With patients, Ehrlich uses urine tests to measure neurotransmitter levels, but he also looks for underlying factors. "Is the cause your diet? Toxic relationships? If that's the case," he asks, "are you just going to try to mask it with a natural medicine as opposed to a pharmaceutical medicine?"
For instance, a diet high in refined, sugary foods and drinks can trigger wild fluctuations in blood sugar that may underlie mood swings. It can also deplete the adrenal glands, leading to a low mood because it's impossible to muster enough physical and mental energy to get through the day. In such cases, the first step would be correcting your diet.
In some cases, says Ehrlich, there is a genetic abnormality that prevents folate from being absorbed. (Folate levels can be tested.) Because the vitamin is needed to produce serotonin, a deficiency can lead to depression. Taking an activated form-5-MTHF-can remedy this issue.
3 Amino Acids that Can Help
Theanine: It has a calming effect on the nervous system. Studies have found that 200-400 mg daily calms anxiety and other symptoms of stress. It also enhances the ability to focus, improves sleep, and quickens reaction time without unwanted daytime drowsiness. A patented form, called Suntheanine, has been widely studied and is found in a variety of brands.
Tyrosine: It increases mental get-up-and-go and the ability to focus, and can help clear brain fog. In one study, tyrosine enhanced the ability to solve puzzles. Spinach, eggs, dairy products, soy foods, lima beans, pumpkin and sesame seeds, and fruit are good food sources. Tyrosine supplements should be taken 30 minutes before meals.
Tryptophan and 5-HTP: An amino acid found in food, tryptophan is converted by the body into 5-HTP, and then into serotonin. So while tryptophan and 5-HTP produce the same result, tryptophan takes longer to get there (not necessarily a bad thing, says Ehrlich). Studies have found that, in addition to relieving depression, both amino acids help improve sleep when taken at night. For mood benefits, studies have used 3-6 grams daily of tryptophan. And for 5-HTP, try 50 mg, one to three times daily, on an empty stomach.