Amino Acid Therapy for Mental Health + Addictions

Hello, everybody, my name is Dr Talia Marcheggiani

I am a naturopathic doctor and I work in Toronto and I focus on mental health and hormones, especially women's hormones Today I want to talk to you guys about amino acid therapy and amino acid supplementation in preventing cravings, particularly for substance addictions or sugar addiction, but also for improving our mood and mental health and for treating specific psychiatric conditions Amino acids are the building blocks of protein If you think of a string of beads, amino acids are the individual beads that get connected in a string and then folded up into the proteins that make up our body Our body is basically just a hunk of protein and water

And these proteins set the stage for all of the chemical reactions, as well as the structure of our body When it comes to addictions and mental health conditions, there's a lot of debate around what sets the stage for someone to experience addiction, or struggle with addictions throughout their life And one of the things that gets a lot of blame, that also fits the pharmaceutical model, especially when it comes to depression and the prescription of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, is this idea that mental health and addiction is something innate, that we're born with and that needs to be corrected chemically with something like a drug like an SSRI And we know that there's obviously a genetic component to addictions and mental health and it's certainly not the fault or moral failing in the person that's suffering from these kind of things, but we also know that our genes don't write the entire story of our experience and that, for many people, there's lifestyle changes that can really influence genetic predispositions So a study that was done in rats who had a built-in genetic predisposition to addiction, to cocaine addiction, particularly, because they had a deficiency in a hormone called "dopamine", or issues with their dopamine synthesis, and cocaine is a really potent stimulator of dopamine, which is kind of like a pleasure and reward hormone, or neurotransmitter, in our brains

These kinds of rats that were treated with amino acids, they didn't display addictive behaviours, so they were essentially cured and their genetics were no longer relevant in terms of how they were acting out, or their behaviour, which is really promising because it was just amino acid therapy So neurotransmitters are hormones that work in our brain; they're produced and act in the brain Well, we know now with more research, I mean that's the traditional definition of neurotransmitter, but from more research we've found that there's evidence for the gut producing certain neurotransmitters like serotonin So you can watch another video where I talk about the gut and how important it is to have a healthy gut when it comes to managing mental health, especially in depression and anxiety There's a few neurotransmitters that are really, that really influence our behaviour and our mental health status and so the first one I already mentioned is dopamine, which gives us that sense of reward and gives us a sense of pleasure

So, dopamine is active when you're doing something that is really internally motivating You're engrossed in a task In terms of addictions, it's that seeking behaviour So a lot of people will experience pleasure in seeking out their substance of choice or thinking about indulging in sugar when they get home from work So, that's dopamine, that's sort of our—the pleasure that we get from acting in the world and it definitely runs part of the show when it comes to addictions

To quote another study in rats, so dopamine is really prevalent in our hypothalamus and so, with rats, you can give them a lever where they can direct cocaine directly into that area, and so it gives them a giant hit of dopamine And rats that are given that option, will choose that option over food and so they'll just stimulate their brain until they die They'll drink some water here and there but most of the time all they do is stimulate their dopamine So that's how pleasurable it is It's pretty much the influence of how we behave in the world and what goals we set for ourselves in the world as well

It's how we get our delayed gratification, it's how we work towards pleasurable tasks and how we engage in things like study or work goals or things like that Another neurotransmitter, serotonin, which I've talked about before, and that's what the SSRIs, so selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors are working on And those are the most widely prescribed psychiatric medications And that's the hypothesis that people with depression and anxiety have a deficiency in serotonin: just this kind of innate serotonin deficiency where they either don't make enough or they're metabolizing it more quickly than other people So serotonin is kind of our happy hormone, that's what gives us a sense of well-being and pleasure

And, there's no evidence for this hypothesis, however know that through stimulating serotonin pathways, to an extent, we can get some favourable outcomes We also know that SSRI medications deplete serotonin, and that there's a connection between serotonin and sugar addictions, because eating sugar will increase serotonin So a lot of women with sugar cravings during PMS So a couple of weeks, sometimes up to two weeks before their periods, some women will get really intense cravings for sugar and carbs, and that's indication of a fall in serotonin before their period, which is causing them to seek out these things to boost their serotonin levels And that can be treated with amino acids

And then a third is acetylcholine So acetylcholine is involved in memory and cognition and sort of that feeling of being engrossed in a task Not so much involved in pleasure, but in our ability to stay focussed and to concentrate A fourth neurotransmitter is called GABA GABA suppresses our nervous system

So, this is relevant in people with anxiety and this is what the drug class benzodiazepines work on, is GABA receptors So, in our limbic system, GABA kind of calms down that fight or flight, or that fear state in our body And oftentimes people who have a heightened nervous system or stress response could use some GABA to calm them down So there's a few amino acids that work on these neurotransmitters So these neurotransmitters are built with an amino acid backbone

By giving these amino acids, we're kind of like—if you think of all these neurotransmitters assembled on a factory line, the amino acid is the starting point So if you're giving a lot of the supplies, then you're more likely to cause in increase in production of the thing that you're increasing the supply for We also know that there can be deficiencies in amino acids and therefore, if there's a shortage of supplies for the key ingredients for the things you're producing in a factory, you're not going to get the end result because there's just not enough of the raw materials to make what you're trying to make So, we can have things like serotonin deficiency not so much because there's a genetic predisposition, or an issue with the brain's ability to metabolize it or make it, but maybe that there's a deficiency in the amino acids, or the vitamins and minerals that are needed to create serotonin When it comes to naturopathic medicine and functional medicine, we kind of look at this

We try and see how we can influence the body's biochemical pathways to get more of what we're noticing is lacking And so one of the ways that we can find out which neurotransmitters are lacking is by running some functional tests That's not really a big part of my practice because of the cost involved in that, but we can tell a lot through symptoms So we can tell a lot by asking, are people getting sugar cravings, what's their drug of choice, are they heading towards cocaine or are they calming their nervous system down and stimulating their GABA pathways with alcohol Are they trying to get that pleasure sensation with something like heroin? Are they going for stimulants or central nervous system depressants? So, based on what someone is addicted to, or looking at and really breaking down their addictive behaviours, we can find out more about which neurotransmitters might be off

And in a lot of cases there's a deficiency in many of them One of the first things to recommend, just generally, is to increase more protein in the diet, because we know that these amino acids are contained in proteins And, strangely enough, we don't get a lot of high-quality protein in our diet in the Standard American Diet, so you think of a bacon and eggs breakfast and McDonald's lunch and you're like, 'well, there's protein in those foods' But, in something like eggs, we're only getting about 6 grams of protein an egg, whereas I recommend more like 20 to 30 grams of protein in the morning for breakfast And the reason for this is, of course, to just increase the amount of amino acids that your body can then use to make neurotransmitters, but also to keep blood sugar stable, because drops in blood sugar are going to cause stress hormones to be released and potentially for these neurotransmitters to be altered, worsening addictions, especially addictions to sugar and alcohol, which boost our blood sugar So the first thing, dopamine, that amino acid that creates dopamine is tyrosine So, for some people, and tyrosine is a very stimulating amino acid, so people that kind of have that 2 pm slump, sometimes benefit with some tyrosine, or tyrosine in the morning when they're feeling really low And so these people kind of suffer from boredom, they really like stimulants, so they'll do the caffeine, or they'll use cocaine on the weekends, or they're really involved in pleasure-seeking behaviour like, maybe they had a diagnosis of ADHD as a kid, or adult-onset ADHD, which is more involved in traumatic experiences and mental health and neurotransmitter imbalance than it is some genetic predisposition

Sometimes with these people, supplementing with tyrosine can help, just give them that dopamine boost and keep their nervous system more stimulated so that they don't need to stimulate it with substances For serotonin, the building block is l-tryptophan, which is then made into something called 5-HTP So some naturopaths will prescribe l-tryptophan as a supplement, I tend to go more with 5-HTP because it passes a step so that your body has to do less work 5-HTP is really great to help with sleep It's good to help with boosting mood, to a certain level, and it's also really great for PMS sugar cravings, and alcohol cravings

I find myself, personally, so this Christmas I'm going sugar and alcohol free I've been sugar and alcohol free for a few months, but I'm going to carry that on through the holidays, so I've had to turn to 5-HTP before my period because I realized how many sugar cravings I get before then And, miraculously, just with a few hundred milligrams of 5-HTP, I've noticed a giant change in the foods that I was craving and in my ability to hold off on having sugar and alcohol So, pretty powerful So, in order to make serotonin, 5-HTP also needs some B vitamins and magnesium

So, people that are deficient in things like B6 and B12 and folate, so I'm looking at vegetarians who often have B12 deficiencies, or vegans And, actually I see a lot of B12 deficiency or suboptimal B12 in people that eat meat as well, so this isn't necessarily something is only applicable to vegetarians But it's important for a lot of people to supplement then with these other cofactors that help make serotonin, especially if they're on an SSRI already And I don't advise just doing this on your own, it's better to do this with a professional who can figure out what's the underlying cause of a neurotransmitter imbalance and then help prescribe a comprehensive treatment plan that will get you to better neurotransmitter synthesis and treat your symptoms, or the underlying condition Something else that I find really helpful, and this is one of my favourite nutrients in psychiatry and in women's health and something I take is something called N-acetyl cysteine, or NAC, "NAC"

And NAC is from the amino acid cysteine and it produces something called glutathione So glutathione is the primary antioxidant in the body This is what our body uses to neutralize all of the free radicals, that is kind of a buzzword—people will tell you to drink green tea, eat blueberries, to get antioxidants, well, the main antioxidant our body uses is something called glutathione, and NAC helps produce glutathione It helps our liver detoxify and, in hospitals medical professionals will give people intravenous NAC to treat Tylenol overdose, which we know is liver toxic, so it's widely recognized that NAC can treat toxicity of the liver It's also a powerful antioxidant for the lungs so I prescribe it to patients who are smokers or recovering from smoking or aren't really ready to quit smoking yet but are experiencing some of the bronchitis, the emphysema, or the increased phlegm or lung issues that go along with a chronic habit of smoking

So, it's a powerful antioxidant and it has an affinity for the lungs and for excess mucus production It also helps balance estrogen because of the liver detoxification, so it helps us detoxify estrogen through the liver, and is really helpful for a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome, which is when the ovaries are producing testosterone and not responding to other hormones properly, so this is really helpful It also helps with blood sugar balance NAC's the best And so, there's lots of research for NAC in things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and psychosis and OCD

So these more serious psychiatric conditions, NAC can really help balance And we're not sure exactly why but one of the hypothesis is that, because it creates glutathione, it helps lower inflammation, and we know that inflammation is implicated in mental health conditions and so that's why NAC might be so useful It doesn't interact with psychiatric medications and so it's a really big part of my practice New research has shown that NAC can help with addictions and cravings for things like nicotine, cannabis, food, so binge eating, cocaine and gambling, interestingly enough And then there's a new study that NAC can help treat porn addiction

So, it's involved in helping lower that desire for, not necessarily substances, or food, but behavioural addictions as well, which is useful And there's studies in trichotillomania, so that's like, compulsive hair plucking—so people will pluck their eyelashes or pluck their hair—or skin picking, and NAC can work pretty rapidly in bringing down those desires and stopping those behaviours GABA is something you also might have heard of So, GABA was a neurotransmitter that I cited before, that calms the nervous system down GABA, there's debate about whether it crosses the blood brain barrier

So, our brain has this really tight wall that it prevents certain substances from crossing That's to protect our brain tissue from toxins and foreign objects, or foreign substances So we're not sure, necessarily, if GABA's acting on the brain unless there's a leaky brain situation happening, so kind of like leaky gut, we can also have that with our blood brain barrier But there's herbal combinations that help stimulate GABA, that I implement in my practice sometimes to help people that are experiencing panic attacks or anxiety, to get them to a level where they can then make the changes that are going to sustain them So, things like valerian and hops, and passionflower and something that I prescribe a lot, kava, another herb called lemon balm

So, sometimes combinations of these, or just one of these things can help, especially before bed And so, one of the indications for GABA deficiency is a craving for wine, especially at the end of the day, and particularly white wine I guess it has more GABA-stimulating properties I have a lot of patients, many of them female patients, that just really crave a glass of wine at the end of the day And a few other patients that will have an after-work beer

So, just doing some GABA, or some GABA herbs, on the way home from work might be enough to decrease that need to reward and balance that nervous system, because the alcohol does have a GABA-stimulating effect and calms people down It's us looking for a way to self-medicate and trying to balance our neurotransmitters through the actions that we're familiar with that don't necessarily set us up for powerful health because they perpetuate further addictions, like turning to alcohol to calm ourselves back down, or as a reward and stress relief And the last neurotransmitter I'm going to talk about is something called l-glutamine So, glutamine is a fuel for brain cells and for gut cells, as well as kidney cells It's another amino acid, it's involved in creating the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is excitatory

So, this is something that increases our nervous system tone So, glutamine we prescribe as naturopaths a lot for leaky gut because it helps feed our enterocytes, or our gut cells, it can help repair them So, somebody with celiac disease who's experienced a lot of intestinal damage and has now taken out gluten, might need some glutamine, some l-glutamine to repair the gut cells that were damaged or increase that cell turnover so that they're no longer experiencing symptoms L-glutamine has kind of got a sugary taste, but it doesn't stimulate us like sugar does, and so one thing that people do when they're experiencing sugar and alcohol cravings is to take some glutamine powder or open up a capsule of l-glutamine and let it dissolve under their tongue And they experience a remarkable decrease in their sugar and alcohol cravings, those physiological cravings—the emotional cravings are another piece, obviously—but the physical cravings where our body is really asking for these foods, the l-glutamine can really help calm that down powerfully

So this is something that I'm going to experiment with myself and with some patients that I know could really benefit from this So I wanted to give this talk, just to give you guys some easy things to try over the holidays, especially when you're experiencing some of those sugar or alcohol cravings or getting into a situation where your vices are playing out in excess I know that this is going to be helpful for me, because of my commitment to no sugar or alcohol this holiday season, which is actually easier than it sounds And one thing to note too, is that with amino acids, because we're pushing pathways, they don't work necessarily like drugs that can take, like an SSRI can take 4 to 6 weeks before it's effect comes on These work within days

So, when I was experiencing sugar cravings before my period last month, and I started to take 5-HTP, which remember stimulates serotonin, or helps us produce serotonin, and can help with sugar cravings, and carb cravings When I started to take 5-HTP, I noticed this sense of well-being and uplifted mood within a few days and it was a noticeable effect, as well as deepened sleep My sugar cravings immediately dissipated when I started taking it So it took a few doses to eliminate my sugar cravings and then a few days to increase my mood, which I didn't even realize was kind of falling, based on that serotonin deficiency before my period So, these are really powerful therapies that you can try

I don't advise doing it on your own, but seeking the help of a professional, but these are things that can really help balance brain chemistry during the holiday season and set you up for better mental health So, next talk I'm going to talk about leaky gut and leaky brain and how avoiding gluten can help with mental health conditions So, have a great holiday, everyone and I'll see you next time My name is Dr Talia Marcheggiani, and I'm a naturopathic doctor who practices in Toronto

If you have any questions give me a shout on my email at [email protected] Happy Holidays


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