Amino acid therapy: Is it beneficial for mental health?

My interest in amino acids was sparked after I began to follow the research on NAC (n.acteyl cysteine) for treatment-resistant mental health disorders. An initial staunch non-believer in amino acid therapy, I decided to give it a try following the birth of my second child, in an attempt to mitigate the effects of post-natal depression that I suffered 8 years earlier. I did my research, and began to supplement with amino acids immediately after arriving home with my baby girl.

After documenting how I was feeling for several weeks, I was surprised to find that my previously debilitating symptoms of post natal depression were significantly less this time around. There were of course, the usual symptoms of fatigue and poor concentration that come with sleep deprivation due to feeding and taking care of a baby round the clock, but I was socially active, mostly cheerful, and my motivation was good. Amino acid therapy had piqued my interest.

Can aminos support mental health? The research suggests yes.

There is certainly a place for selective and limited amino acid therapy in mental health. Why only limited, you ask? Because amino acids work in concert and as antagonists to each other, just like vitamins, and should not be taken in isolation for long – and only under certain conditions. I’ve never been a fan of supplementing vitamins alone, and the same goes for aminos. Nature provides a variety of nutrients together in the foods we eat for a reason – we were not meant to consume them in isolation.

Which aminos you choose to supplement with should depend very much on what your goal is. Amino acids form the backbone of our hormones and neurotransmitters. Dopamine, for example, requires tyrosine. Serotonin requires tryptophan. But let’s not forget the very important fact that no one substance in the human body is formed without the help of others. For example, serotonin requires vitamin B6, calcium, iron and vitamin C. Certain nutrients are rate-limiting components (ie. the substance cannot be formed if the body does not have enough).

So what does the research tell us about supplementing with amino acids to support mental health? The most interesting amino acid is cysteine, particularly in its acetylated form n.acteylcysteine (NAC). The safety and efficacy of this simple amino are well documented, with research showing its usefulness for a number of treament-resistant conditions, including major depression, addiction, schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder (2).

Tyrosine is another amino acid with relatively well documented efficacy for mood disorders and mental health. Pivotal in the formation of the neurotransmitter dopamine, as well as the catecholamines adrenaline and noradrenaline, tyrosine also forms part of the thyroid hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine. Tyrosine deficiency, or a deficiency of any of the nutrients involved in the synthesis of dopamine, has the capacity to impact mood.

Glycine is not an essential amino acid and therefore can be manufactured by the human body, although some evidence suggests that biosynthesis alone may not be enough to meet our needs (3). There is a surprising amount of research to support the use of this amino, including its purported efficacy for inflammatory and metabolic disorders, as well as cancer. Glycine also improves sleep quality, a factor known to affect the development and ongoing severity of mood disorders. As an NMDA receptor antagonist, glycine may also be useful in the treatment of conditions such as schizophrenia and depression.

Tryptophan is probably one of the better known aminos. Forming the backbone of the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin, the benefits of tryptophan in terms of mood should be clear. Interestingly, the research is hit and miss. There is also the fear that tryptophan may raise serotonin levels to a level that results in toxicity – otherwise known as serotonin syndrome – which can be fatal. For that reason, most experts recommend avoiding high doses of tryptophan or 5-HTP, tryptophan’s bioactive form (4).

Carnitine – specifically acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC), certainly has the weight of research behind it in terms of its usefulness for cognitive health. ALC has fairly well-substantiated neuroprotective benefits, and may prevent neuronal death. Reducing the effects of oxidative stress are particularly important for the ageing brain, but also for those suffering from anxiety and depression, especially where the possibility of neuroinflammation exists. ALC also blocks excitotoxicity in the brain, which is usually caused by an excess of glutamate at the synapses. Neuronal excitotoxicity results in behavioural changes such as those seen in OCD or schizophrenia (5). All in all, ALC has some very exciting potential.

But first, start with diet.

When do I start supplementing you say? Well, hold up there just a little. There are a couple of rules with amino acid therapy:

  1. Do the right things with your diet first (If you’re not sure what this looks like, read my previous post on diet and depression). Working on getting your nutrition right is important for two reasons: Firstly, you will obtain nutrients in the way nature intended – the interplay of which is vital for human health. Secondly, if your diet isn’t right, you’re not going to get optimal results from any kind of treatment. Supplementing is not a quick fix, and should be used to enhance your dietary efforts – not as a standalone.
  2. If you do supplement, do so under the guidance of an experienced practitioner. Just like any other therapeutic agent, whether it be natural or pharmaceutical, taken the wrong way they can cause serious harm.
  3. Exercise and lifestyle matter. Whether you like it or not, no exercise and high stress WILL impact your mental health in one way or another. Move your body daily and find ways to manage your stress.

If you are going to supplement, make sure the product you choose is pure and free from nasty excipients. Consult your local, qualified natural health practitioner if you’re not sure what’s right for you.

Want to know more about this topic, or have questions about natural therapies to support mental and cognitive health? You can contact me here.

(1) Onaolapo, A. Y., Obelawo, A. Y., & Onaolapo, O. J. (2019). Brain Ageing, Cognition and Diet: A Review of the Emerging Roles of Food-Based Nootropics in Mitigating Age-related Memory Decline. Current Aging Science, 12(1), 2–14.

(2) Martínez-Banaclocha M. (2020). N-acetyl-cysteine in Schizophrenia: Potential Role on the Sensitive Cysteine Proteome. Current medicinal chemistry27(37), 6424–6439.

(3) Razak, M. A., Begum, P. S., Viswanath, B., & Rajagopal, S. (2017). Multifarious Beneficial Effect of Nonessential Amino Acid, Glycine: A Review. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity2017, 1716701.

(4) Sarris, J., Mischoulon, D., & Schweitzer, I. (2011). Adjunctive nutraceuticals with standard pharmacotherapies in bipolar disorder: A systematic review of clinical trials. Bipolar Disorders, 13(5–6), 454–465.

(5) Pennisi, M., Lanza, G., Cantone, M., D’amico, E., Fisicaro, F., Puglisi, V., Vinciguerra, L., Bella, R., Vicari, E., & Malaguarnera, G. (2020). Acetyl-L-Carnitine in dementia and other cognitive disorders: A critical update. Nutrients, 12(5), 1–23.

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