Can Amino Acids Be Used to Treat Mental Health Disorders?
The connection between amino acids and mental health disorders is becoming increasingly clear. A team of researchers at the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation published findings in Nutrition Journal on the connection between nutrition and mental health that highlighted the variety of ways the food you eat influences your mood. One of the most significant connections they noted was the one between amino acids and mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
The researchers explain that the human body uses three amino acids—tryptophan, tyrosine, and phenylalanine—to produce three key neurotransmitters—serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine—deficiencies of which are known to be linked to depression.
Plus, they note that tryptophan may alleviate symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) by raising serotonin levels, and that supplementing with the amino acid glycine improved certain symptoms for some schizophrenia patients. They also explore the connection between a deficiency in taurine, a byproduct of the amino acids cysteine and methionine, and increased manic episodes for individuals with bipolar disorder.
Amino acids can be a wonderful natural method for altering your brain chemistry. But many factors influence how effective amino acid therapy will be for an individual and their particular mental health challenges. In this article, we’ll explore what research tells us about using amino acids for mental health, how amino acids interact with the blood-brain barrier, and more.
Exciting Research on Amino Acids and Mental Health Disorders
Researchers from the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) believe that amino acids could be an alternative to conventional pharmaceutical treatments for psychiatric conditions.
In the early 1990s, many felt hopeful that new, more effective treatments for different mood disorders were right around the corner. Two decades later, most pharmaceutical companies have downshifted the research into psychiatric drugs. Some have even exited that realm altogether. According to Professor Michael Berk, Chair in Psychiatry at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, one factor behind that has been the “overreliance on typical monoamine pathways as targets for drug discovery.”
Former director of the National Institute for Mental Health, Steven Hyman, said: “Drug discovery is at a near standstill for treating psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and common forms of autism.” But that doesn’t need to be the case.
Neuroscientists have identified an array of pathways other than the monoamine pathways targeted by most of the current generation of pharmaceutical drugs used to treat major psychiatric disorders. Professor Berk stated that there’s now “an incontrovertible evidence base” showing inflammation and oxidative stress play a role in the development and progression of mood disorders like depression and schizophrenia.
Researchers have also identified possible pathways for alleviating mood disorders that involve:
- Neurotrophins, proteins that stimulate neuronal growth
- Increased apoptosis, a kind of cellular self-destruction
- Energy generation in a type of organelle called mitochondria
Berk said that understanding how these factor into mood disorders “provides an entirely new set of treatment targets.”
One particular amino acid, N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), appears to act on all these pathways in a variety of ways. It can:
- Boost levels of glutathione, the body’s major antioxidant defense system
- Reduce inflammation throughout the body
- Increase levels of nerve cell growth proteins
- Spur the growth of new neurons
- Reduce unnecessary cell death
- Decrease mitochondrial dysfunction
A series of clinical trials have shown that these effects of NAC can reduce core symptoms of schizophrenia-related to apathy, social interaction, and motivation. Studies have also shown that it can reduce symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder. There’s also intriguing evidence showing it may reduce cravings stemming from addictions to cocaine, cannabis, and nicotine. The only adverse side effect noted so far, Berk said, has been nausea.
The Connection Between Amino Acids and Neurotransmitters
NAC is far from the only amino acid that shows promise as a means of improving your mental health and well-being. As touched on earlier, tryptophan, tyrosine, phenylalanine, glycine, cysteine, and methionine have all shown benefits for the following conditions:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Bipolar disorder
Many of the beneficial ways amino acids impact your mental health have to do with the fact that some of them are precursors of neurotransmitters while others actually function as neurotransmitters. The way neurotransmitters work is quite complex, but for our purposes, it will suffice to say that our brains depend on them for mood stability, among other vital functions. If you’re interested in delving further into the science of neurotransmitters and amino acids, this article is a wonderful place to start.
Why It Matters Whether Amino Acids Can Cross the Blood-Brain Barrier
Because your brain is so remarkably valuable, your body has developed finely-tuned defense mechanisms to keep it safe, including a highly sensitive membrane known as the blood-brain barrier. This semi-permeable membrane surrounds your brain, allowing some substances to travel from your bloodstream into your brain and blocking the transit of others.
Tests conducted with animal subjects have shown that when a large dose of a specific amino acid is ingested, it can increase the production of the neurotransmitters in the brain that are generated from that amino acid. This indicates that amino acids can cross the blood-brain barrier and therefore can be used to alter the levels of the chemicals in our brains responsible for our moods, energy levels, and so on.
However, taking single amino acid supplements may not be the best approach. Amino acids work synergistically, and providing your body with optimal quantities of all the essential amino acids, either through diet or supplementation, will set it up to utilize each of those amino acids most effectively.
How You Can Use Amino Acids to Improve Your Mental Health
Providing our brains with a steady supply of the nutrients it needs to maintain balanced levels of neurotransmitters can help to prevent as well as to treat a number of mental health disorders.
There’s no longer any doubt that nutrition and mental health are intimately linked: our diets can have a strong influence on our brain chemistry. In some cases, eating a wealth of protein-rich, amino-acid rich foods will be the only step you need to take to use amino acids to improve your mental health. In other cases, it can be helpful to take a high-quality essential amino acid (EAA) supplement to fill in any gaps left by our diets.