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Chances are that you, like millions of other Americans, are suffering from health problems that are a direct consequence of our stressed-out, modern way of living. Many people today awaken in the morning feeling unrested after a night of fitful sleep. They drag themselves through the day feeling moody, tired, achy. Succumbing to their cravings for sugary, carbohydrate-laden foods, they put on pounds that only add to their body's burden. They shuttle from doctor to doctor seeking pills that will lift them from their depression, help them control their weight, put a stop to their pounding headaches and the nagging aches in their muscles and joints, and finally get a good night's sleep.
It may surprise you to learn that all of these serious, debilitating complaints can arise from a problem with a single, powerful chemical the body needs to function normally. That chemical is serotonin.
Serotonin is absolutely essential for your brainand thus your bodyto function properly. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that carries vital signals from one cell to the next. Without adequate levels of serotonin, those signals cannot move at the proper speed or intensity. What's more, serotonin acts as a kind of master control chemical. The activities of many other important brain compoundsincluding those that govern your muscle movements, your state of alertness, your mental activity, even your ability to fall asleepdepend on serotonin.
But poor diet, lack of exercise, use of harmful substances such as caffeine or alcohol, and overall physical and emotional stress can rob your brain of the ability to make enough serotonin to meet your body's demands. This produces a range of significant complications: depression, obesity, insomnia, migraine headache, chronic fatigue. Increasingly, scientists, doctors, and other health experts around the world are coming to recognize that this group of complaints all arise from problems with basic brain chemistry. The disorder has a name: serotonin deficiency syndrome.
And here's the exciting news. All of these maladies can be corrected through the same technique: by raising serotonin levels.
Serotonin was first discovered about fifty years ago. Since then an enormous amount of research has been done to unlock the secrets of this multitalented molecule. In the past few decades, findings in the laboratory have led to the development of many potent serotonin-active compounds. Among these are Prozac, the popular antidepressant, which enhances the mood-regulating activity of serotonin; Imitrex, a treatment for migraine headaches, which works by activating serotonin nerve pathways to constrict blood vessels; and Redux, the appetite suppressant that was recently removed from the market, which controls eating by delivering a dose of serotonin to the appetite control centers in the brain. Other serotonin-altering drugs relieve anxiety, enhance sleep, and ease muscular and skeletal pain.
But these medical miracles come with a pretty high price tag. The side effects of synthetic serotonin drugs can be severe. To take just one example: In September 1997 Redux and its chemical cousin fenfluramine, part of the "fen-phen" combination, were yanked off the market. The reason? Doctors suddenly discovered these drugs had caused permanent damage to heart valves in as many as one third of the people who took them.
Fortunately, there's a better way to overcome serotonin deficiency. But because of the way the body makes neurotransmitters, you can't simply take a dose of serotonin as a pill or a tonic. What you can do, though, is provide your body with the raw material it needs to produce its own serotonin.
That raw material is called 5-hydroxytryptophan5-HTP for short.
5-HTP is not a synthetic drug. It is a compound produced by the body from tryptophan, an amino acid found in many foods. It can be very difficult to consume enough tryptophan in the diet to overcome serotonin deficiency. However, 5-HTP can also be extracted from plants. This form of 5-HTP is now widely availablewithout a prescriptionas a nutritional supplement. As you will learn in this book, 5-HTP promises to revolutionize the treatment of serotonin-related emotional and physical conditions.
In Europe, 5-HTP has been used for decades as an approved treatment for depression, sleep problems, weight loss, and other medical complaints. It is just now starting to sweep America. In my practice as a licensed physician, I have prescribed 5-HTP as part of overall therapy programs for hundreds of patients in just the past few years. The results I have seen have been tremendous: improved mood, better physical vitality, higher energy levels, a rediscovery of the basic joy of being alive.
Research into 5-HTP and serotonin is exploding. Throughout this book you will learn about the results of scientific and clinical studies, here and abroad, that are helping to unlock the secrets of 5-HTP. While there are many questions yet to explore, the evidence is clear: 5-HTP is a safe, natural way to boost brain serotonin levels. Use of 5-HTP has been shown to produce results equal to or better than those of standard synthetic drugs used in the treatment of problems arising from serotonin deficiency syndrome.
My goal in writing this book is to provide you with the information and guidance you need to understand what 5-HTP can do for you. Along the way I will explain some of the fascinating activity that takes place inside your brain and your body every second of every day. Understanding that process will help underscore your awareness of what a magnificent creation your body is, and how a deficiency in a single chemical substanceserotonincan wreak such widespread havoc.
Just as important, you'll also discover how the safe and appropriate use of 5-HTP can produce dramatic results in the form of better mood, better sleep, less pain, and greater satisfaction with life.
Serotonin: The Brain's Master Molecule
Serotoninwhich scientists also call 5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT for shortplays many vital roles in brain chemistry. Not only is it important in itself for controlling your moods and behavior, it also acts as a kind of chemical traffic cop that regulates the activity of many other neurotransmitters. If your serotonin levels are too low, then your brain and your entire body may perform poorly, just as the performance of the entire play suffers when the leading actor fails to make his entrance or remember his lines.
Scientists first discovered and isolated serotonin from the blood in the 1940s. Research since then confirms that serotonin has many important effects throughout the body. For example, serotonin is found in platelets, the component of blood that promotes clotting. Whenever you bleed, the platelets release serotonin to help constrict the blood vessels and minimize further loss of blood. The cells of your digestive tract also contain serotonin and serotonin receptors. The chemical regulates the secretion of stomach acid and other digestive fluids. It also stimulates certain intestinal muscles to contract, which helps move food along.
Our main concern, however, is with the role of serotonin within the brain. Serotonin influences a wide range of normal brain activity, including moods, eating patterns, pain transmission, sexual behavior, and sleep. The level of serotonin present in your brain can have a tremendous impact on how you think, feel, and behave. Having an adequate supply produces what is sometimes called the "serotonin effect"a feeling of calmness, mild euphoria, and relaxation. Having too little serotonin can lead to the opposite situationfeelings of depression, anxiety, and other problems associated with serotonin deficiency syndrome.
The Effects of Different Levels of Serotonin
Optimal Level of Serotonin
Reflective and thoughtful
Loving and caring
Able to concentrate
Able to think things through
Does not overeat carbohydrates
Sleeps well with good dream recall
Low Level of Serotonin
Short attention span
Flies off the handle
Craves sweets and high-carbohydrate foods
Insomnia and poor dream recall
Out of the dozens of neurotransmitters, serotonin is the one most involved in the onsetand for that matter, the treatmentof various medical and psychiatric problems. If something goes wrong with the serotonin system, the impact can be tremendous. The consequences of serotonin deficiency syndrome can be devastating and include plunging moods, health-threatening food cravings, ruined sleep, skull-cracking headaches, overwhelming body pain, and just plain exhaustion. Because low serotonin can result from the stress and strain of our modern way of living, and because its symptoms severely reduce the joy of life to such a tremendous degree for so many people, I consider serotonin deficiency syndrome to be one of the most widespread and debilitating medical problems of our time.
Conditions Associated with Low Serotonin Levels
Attention deficit disorder
Chronic pain disorders (such as fibromyalgia)
Headaches (migraines, tension headaches, chronic headaches)
Myoclonus (muscle twitching)
Seasonal affective disorder ("winter depression")
Suicidal thoughts and behavior
That serotonin is so deeply involved in so many brain functions comes as no surprise to scientists who study this complex organ. Research has shown that the activities of other types of neurotransmitters are concentrated in just a few areas of the brain. In contrast, clusters of serotonin-producing neurons are found in many key locations. For example, the part of the brain that controls our emotionsknown as the limbic systemhas a rich supply of serotonin neurons. The fibers branching out from serotonin-producing cells appear to be thicker and more densely woven into other parts of the brain than those of other neurons.
In recent years scientists have discovered that there are at least seven, and possibly as many as fifteen, subtypes of serotonin receptors. Each of these receptor types specializes in handling signals that govern different body functions. For example, one kind of serotonin receptor handles our response to anxiety, while another is in charge of blood vessel constriction.
The lower your level of serotonin, the more severe and widespread the potential impact on your brain and body. For example, low levels of serotonin can cause overwhelming sugar cravings. Research has shown that many people with bulimia, an eating disorder that causes uncontrollable eating binges, have insufficient supplies of serotonin. Low serotonin levels also are involved in depression, a common and often serious mental disorder characterized by very low mood and reduced levels of functioning. As you'll learn in more detail in the next chapter, a serious and life-threatening symptom of depression is suicidal thinking or, worse, suicidal behavior. Some scientific studies have found that people with the lowest levels of serotonin are at greatest risk of attemptingor committingsuicide. Lack of serotonin can disrupt your sleep patterns and lead to insomnia, as I'll explain in Chapter 4. Studies show that migraine headaches are the result of low serotonin levels and that boosting serotonin can prevent these headaches from developing (see Chapter 5). Because serotonin directly regulates the body's response to pain, and affects other neurotransmitters involved in pain control, maintaining adequate serotonin levels can relieve such pain syndromes as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and premenstrual syndrome.
The problems arising from serotonin deficiency syndrome may vary from person to person. For example, in some people low levels of serotonin may cause depression, while in others the same level might produce regular disabling headaches or a voracious appetite for sweets and carbohydrates.
These variations in the effects of serotonin reflect human biochemical individuality. Although we all have the same basic electrochemical system in our brains, there are major differences in how we respond to the signals sent along that system in terms of mood and behavior.
The bottom line: If we hope to live a healthy, happy life, we need proper and balanced levels of key brain chemicals. But as I've said, the stress that results from our modern lifestyle can cause us to have insufficient levels of perhaps the most important of these chemicals, serotonin.
You might be wondering: If serotonin is so important, why can't I just increase my level by taking a pill or having an injection? The simple answer is that serotonin cannot safely be "imported" from the outside. It can only be manufactured inside the body, especially inside the brain. Like a factory, the brain needs an adequate supply of raw materials that it can modify to produce the final result: molecules of serotonin.
And the best source of that raw materialand one of the most exciting natural health breakthroughs of this or any decadeis 5-HTP.