As with sleep disturbances, depression can contribute to irritability, impulsive behavior, and poor judgment. For nearly three decades, serotonin has been recognized as the neurotransmitter of central importance in managing depression; virtually all drug therapies in use today aim at raising levels of serotonin at the synapses where nerve cells communicate.
Boosting and balancing brain serotonin through tryptophan supplementation (as opposed to through drug therapy) is an innovative approach to depression that is gaining more and more traction—especially with the discovery that patients with major depression and addiction have low levels of tryptophan.
Studies show that tryptophan compares favorably with prescription antidepressants, either when used alone or in combination with a prescription drug. Pharmaceutical antidepressants are slow-acting and may cause temporary or prolonged sleep disturbances.
Studies show that lowering plasma tryptophan levels induces many of the symptoms of major depression in patients who have depression or are at familial risk for the disorder.
Intriguingly, one of the major manifestations of depression is negative emotional processing, including a tendency to interpret facial expressions in a negative manner (this can reinforce feelings of sadness and hopelessness that are key features of depressive illness). Tryptophan depletion intensifies this effect, while tryptophan supplementation reverses it, creating a pleasant positive bias instead, a result shared with prescription antidepressants but without their side effects.
In studies of the milder depressive syndrome known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or “winter depression,” treatment with bright light (to simulate the longer days of summer) is currently the standard of care. Recent studies, however, demonstrate that tryptophan supplementation is as effective as light therapy, and its effect lasts longer than that of light treatment.
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