Serotonin & depression: antidepressants or dietary supplementation

"Can I take your serotalin as a supplement to my antidepressant?" is a frequently asked question. Our answer here is always clear: we do not advise taking serotalin as a supplement to an antidepressant due to the interaction and mutual reinforcement.

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So much for the short answer to this question. We have the Ernährungswissenschaftlerin & Health Coach Patricia Hainz to give you a more detailed answer about serotonin and depression.

What's the deal with antidepressants? Serotonin and depression

Depending on the drug, antidepressants have an effect on a depressed person:

  • Mood enhancing
  • Anxiety Relieving
  • Calming
  • Increasing drive or
  • Dampens drive

The most common uses of antidepressants are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders, phobias, panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Chronic pain
  • Sleep disorders

In general, antidepressants affect the metabolism of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, because serotonin and depression are often linked.

Most work by preventing their reuptake into the stores of the "transmitter cell" after release, which is also known as"reuptake inhibition".

Premature or excessive reuptake in the transmitter cell mistakenly leads to too little serotonin and norepinephrine being released in the brain, resulting in a serotonin deficiency. By means of reuptake inhibition, the transmitting cell in the brain is made to believe that it has not yet produced enough serotonin. This does not cause the production to stop prematurely. Instead, the messenger substances can now accumulate in the synaptic gap between the nerve cells and thus have a stronger effect on the "recipient cell".

SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors)

Antidepressants called serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), are most commonly used. The aim of therapy with serotonin re uptake inhibitors is to improve the often severely impaired quality of life in depressed patients, to prevent relapses and to relieve the symptoms of patients with depression. These range from low mood, concentration problems and sleep disturbances to suicidal thoughts.

According to current studies, SSRIs are effective because they can help better than placebos, or dummy medications. However, they do not bring noticeable relief to all sufferers and are not happy pills, which means that quick and strong improvements in depression are not to be expected. SSRIs can be helpful for severe and arguably moderate depression, whether they also have an effect on milder forms is debatable. Another big question is also how, when, and at what sites SSRIs act in the brain, but they are likely to be involved in a number of processes.

Side effects of antidepressants in depression

As helpful as they may seem at first glance, however, side effects are numerous.

Generally, they are limited to the autonomic nervous system and manifest themselves in constipation and circulatory problems, for example. Tricyclic substances can lead to dry mouth, urinary disorders and a drop in blood pressure, while SSRIs cause nausea, restlessness, sleep disorders and, in some patients, sexual dysfunction. Therefore, while treating depression with an antidepressant medication, medical supervision is necessary to detect side effects.

Apart from the side effects: is medication always necessary? For mild depression, there is no need to resort to pharmaceuticals right away unless the doctor orders it. For minor mood lows or depressive moods, a natural alternative may be a better choice, as it is usually free of side effects and available over the counter at any time.

Gentle, natural alternatives

So why not forgo antidepressants and choose alternatives?

In many cases, treatment with the so-called happiness hormones serotonin and dopamine has proven helpful. As neurotransmitters, serotonin or dopamine perform important functions in the brain. Without them, there would be no feeling of happiness, no high spirits. Serotonin takes a very important role in the human body. It provides a better mental mood and increases the sense of well-being. People with depression usually have up to 50% less serotonin in their blood serum, so administration of this neurotransmitter can compensate for a low mood or serotonin deficiency.

Serotonin is therefore the hormone that regulates mood, reduces aggression and prevents anxiety from arising in the first place. Therefore, a deficiency of serotonin is also suspected in depression. One possible measure to remedy the serotonin deficiency is the intake of 5-HTP. This is an amino acid and is considered a precursor to serotonin. The ingredient stands for "5-hydroxytryptophan." This implies that 5-HTP is converted to mood-enhancing serotonin in the stomach and brain. The amino acid L-tryptophan can be ingested via food, from which 5-HTP is formed in the body and from which the neurotransmitter serotonin known to us is ultimately formed. Serotonin is responsible for our well-being in the brain and is also the starting point for most common antidepressants.

5-HTP as a dietary supplement for depression

When 5-HTP is taken as a dietary supplement, more of the serotonin precursor substance is present in the body. According to some studies, 5-HTP is as effective against depression as antidepressants. The ingredient has a distinct advantage over them due to its immediate effect right after ingestion.

Scientists believe that both substances are similar in effect, but that 5-HTP has the clear advantage of no serious side effects. There are also no problematic withdrawal symptoms, as is the case with most antidepressants. Therefore, taking 5-HTP can be stopped at any time without any problems. The comparison of 5-HTP and antidepressants was also investigated in studies, such as the following study of the Psychiatric University Clinic Basel by Prof. Pöldinger:

Two groups of patients with depression were treated. One group was treated with the amino acid 5-HTP and the other with the drug fluvoxamine. This drug enhanced the effect of serotonin at the time, but without increasing the level, whereas 5-HTP increased the serotonin level. The study ran for six weeks and during this time the severity of depression was measured in each patient. It was concluded that in both groups the severity of the depressive disorder was reduced and the symptoms decreased. However, one important detail distinguished the results: The group of patients treated with 5-HTP had significantly fewer side effects than the group receiving the antidepressant.(https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1909444/)

Our happiness hormone - serotonin

Serotonin is colloquially known as the "happiness hormone", as it is responsible for our mood and thus for our general well-being. Only 5% of the hormone is produced in our brain, while the remaining 95% is produced in the intestine.

Depression, possibly caused by a serotonin deficiency, is usually due to a deficiency of tryptophan or insufficient serotonin production in the stomach and/or brain. Of course, there are many causes of depression, but a serotonin deficiency is partly or mainly responsible in many cases.

Especially in winter, many people notice that their mood deteriorates and they show first symptoms of depression, because sunlight is important for the activation of serotonin. Even people who generally do not go outdoors often usually have a depressed mood, which is partly caused by a lack of direct sunlight. A daily walk in the fresh air therefore has positive effects on health or can prevent mild depression and should therefore be part of your routine!

Mutual reinforcement

In summary, we conclude that taking antidepressants and supplements such as serotalin does not promise "better" results in the treatment of depression. This is because, due to the reuptake inhibitors, the serotonin "newly produced" by serotalin cannot be passed on. In this case, it merely "floats" in our cerebrospinal fluid for a short period of time instead of taking action in the synapses. Serotonin and depression are linked, but the body has to make the serotonin itself, it can't just take it in from the outside.

Overcoming depressive moods

Often it is "only" depressive moods that make life difficult for you. In order to avoid a long-lasting depression, a (temporary) intake of 5-HTP can help you to get over these depressive moods.

Especially in winter months when there is little light, many people feel a dampened inner mood. If everyday life is then difficult to cope with, sleeping problems as well as depression develop within a short period of time and the individual's activity is also significantly reduced.

In serotalin, 5-HTP is extracted from the African climbing shrub Griffonia simplicifolia. The seeds of this plant contain, calculated on the total weight, a portion of 5 to 20 % pure 5-HTP. In contrast to tryptophan and other serotonin tablets, 5-HTP can cross the blood-brain barrier and thus reaches the brain directly via the intestine. There it can now dedicate itself to serotonin synthesis and support you and your well-being.