Could Amino Acid Deficiency Be at the Root of Your Mental Health Struggle?
By Jen Donovan
Have you been to talk therapy for years without a significant decrease in your symptoms? Do you practice all the coping skills and still can’t seem to shake that fog of depression? Are yoga, meditation and other relaxation practices your best friends and yet you still wake up with a knot of anxiety every morning?
At some point, you have to ask yourself: is there something I’m missing here?
That’s what Julia Ross, psychotherapist and nutritionist, argues in her mind blowing book “The Mood Cure”. Of course, there are many mental health conditions that are based in experiences of acute or chronic stressors and traumas. Symptoms such as excessive or dysfunctional experiences of sadness, fear, anger, and other intense emotions serve a specific psychological purpose. They alert the nervous system to potential dangers present and spur necessary actions to be taken to ensure survival. As long as the activating event has passed, interventions such as learning coping skills, self soothing practices, interpersonal skills, recognizing cognitive distortions or thinking errors, and finding safe outlets for emotional release should then in theory resolve many of these symptoms.
But what if the chronic stressor is a deficiency or imbalance inside the body?
Amino acids, which are components broken down from proteins, build and regulate our neurotransmitters and therefore have a major impact on our moods. If we do not have adequate raw material to build and regulate our neurotransmitters, or if another physiological imbalance is not allowing efficient conversion of raw material to usable material in the body, it becomes a biological impossibility to have a positive or stable mood.
Theoretically, we should be able to get all the nutrients we need to create neurotransmitters from our food. Unfortunately, many of us still develop nutrient deficiencies due to eating a diet heavy in processed or starchy foods, having an inadequate intake of animal based protein (the most bio available method of obtaining all 22 amino acids), or unaddressed imbalances in the endocrine system (sex, thyroid, or adrenal hormone dysfunction).
All of these factors can create a phenomenon of “high calorie malnutrition”, where you are technically eating enough calories per day but still have not gotten the adequate building blocks for essential cellular processes, including neurotransmitter production and regulation. Amino acid deficiency is a serious problem, and can create a range of concerning mental health symptoms.
Julia Ross divides these into 4 “Mood Types” that each relate to a specific neurotransmitter imbalance. You can take her full quizzes online at: https://www.juliarosscures.com/tools/Mood_Type_Questionnaire_Practitioners.pdf
Here are general descriptions of the 4 mood types:
Type 1: Low Serotonin
When we have adequate serotonin levels, we are able to feel positive, confident, flexible and easy going. Low serotonin is indicated by an anxious, obsessive, and high functioning depressive mood. People with low serotonin will often be highly self critical, experience excessive guilt, maybe even perfectionistic, and have a hard time letting go and enjoying things. They may obsess and ruminate over a problem continuously without ever feeling resolved. They may even engage in compulsive type behaviors, needing to enact control as much as possible in their environment. Physically, people with low serotonin tend to be prone to constipation, elevated heart rate, insomnia, fibromyalgia, TMJ, migraines, and carbohydrate cravings.
Type 2: Low Catelcholamines
When we have enough catelcholamines (which are dopamine, norepinephrine and adrenalin), we are able to be energized, upbeat, and alert, especially at the beginning of the day when our cortisol levels should naturally be at their highest. Low catelcholamines are indicated by a flat, lethargic, fatigue based depression. People with low catelcholamines will often sleep too much, have difficulty staying focused, and feel emotionally numb. They may need substances like caffeine or sugar to “get going”. Neurologically, people with low catelcholamines may have been diagnosed with chronic fatigue, ADD, or major depressive disorder and tend to feel at least temporarily “better” with stimulating substances such as Adderall or methamphetamines.
Type 3: Low GABA
When we have enough GABA, we are able to be calm, relaxed, and feel competent and resilient in the face of stress. Difficult tasks and experiences are taken in stride. Low GABA is indicated by a wired, constantly stressed, and frequently overwhelmed mood type. People will low GABA will often say things like, “I just can’t take it anymore!” in regards to the next life stressor coming at them. They may also be snappy and irritable. Physically, people with low GABA are often diagnosed with the first stage of adrenal burnout. They are overloaded on cortisol, and as a result may be drawn to substances like alcohol, tranquilizers and benzodiazepines.
Type 4: Low Endorphins
When we have enough endorphins, we are able to easily have experiences of comfort, pleasure and bliss. Self soothing feels like an accessible skill to utilize during difficult times. Low endorphins are indicated by excessive emotional sensitivity, avoidance of emotions, and difficulty “shaking off” painful experiences or disappointment when the experiences cannot be avoided. People with low endorphins tend to feel very “emotionally raw” and will often find themselves crying for what feels like no reason. Physically, people with low endorphins tend to experience chronic pain.
Now that you know your therapy resistant mood problems may actually be the result of an amino acid deficiency, what do you do?
In her book “The Mood Cure”, Julia Ross provides detailed protocols using over the counter amino acid supplements that can be found online or in any natural food or supplement store. Because of the level of detail involved in implementing these protocols, I highly recommend getting a copy of this book to help you begin your journey. If you feel overwhelmed or need additional support, reaching out to an appropriate practitioner such as myself is another great option.
In the mean time, there are a few key things to begin implementing, regardless of your specific mood type, that can help boost and rebalance the production of your neurotransmitters.
1. Clean up your diet. I like to call additives, refined sugars, flours, and seed oils “nutrient suckers”. These include natural or artificial flavorings and colorings, preservatives, emulsifiers (most ingredients that have a chemical sounding or unpronounceable name), white sugar, white flour, or highly processed oils such as canola, soybean, corn, or anything that says “vegetable oil”. These modern day ingredients are so difficult for the body to process that they suck up much higher levels of nutrients than would be on an unprocessed, whole foods diet, and regular consumption over time can lead to significant deficiencies. Basing your diet around foods that do not come in a box, package, bag or bottle is a great place to start. For a bonus, you can eliminate foods that are technically “whole foods” but have enough irritating compounds that they can impinge on your body’s ability to retain and utilize adequate amounts of nutrients that turn into neurotransmitters. These include gluten/wheat (and their cousins rye, barley and oats), soy, alcohol, and caffeine.
2. Prioritize animal protein. The building blocks of our neurotransmitters come from the amino acids in protein. Although you can get a small amount of these nutrients from plant proteins (such as nuts, seeds and legumes), but you would have to eat excessively large amounts and balance different foods correctly to get the exact ratios necessary. Animal proteins contain all 22 amino acids in a form easily absorbable by the body. Eating a minimum of 12 oz of animal protein a day (in the form of meat, seafood, eggs or dairy) is a great way to ensure your body has the tools it needs for a balanced, positive mood.
3. Address sleep. Our brain detoxifies neurotransmitter “waste” from the day while we sleep so we can start with a clean slate every morning. If we are not sleeping long or deep enough, this waste can build up and interfere with our mood over time. I recommend a 10p-6a sleep schedule for optimal nervous system health. This matches with our evolutionary circadian rhythm and provides the highest quality sleep. If this is impossible due to work schedule, try to get it as close as possible and make sure the hours you sleep are mostly consistent. Basic sleep hygiene like dimming the lights in the evening, avoiding blue light (electronic screens without blue light filters), taking a walk or sitting outside as soon as the sun comes up, and doing relaxing activities only in the hour before bed can help get your sleep schedule set appropriately.
4. Use light as therapy. Appropriate light exposure activates our neurotransmitters. If we cannot get an optimal amount of direct sunlight throughout the day, getting a full spectrum lamp is a good alternative. Some people also find they benefit from red light (infrared) exposure, and buy special lamps for this purpose.
5. I always include this tip: make sure you have consistent ways to release and come down from stress. Getting your neurotransmitters balanced does not mean that you will suddenly be immune to the ups and downs of life. Ideally, you will feel more resilient and equipped to handle the difficult times, but it does not replace active daily practices to decompress and ground your nervous system. Prayer, stretching, meditation, moderate exercise, dance, artistic expression, and time in nature are all excellent options for self care practices to engage in on a regular basis.
If you consistently engage in these suggestions above, and they don’t seem to be enough to adequately boost your mood, short term amino acid supplementation may be necessary. Julia Ross’s book “The Mood Cure” gives a detailed description of these protocols, their indications and contraindications. I highly recommend delving into this informative book or scheduling an appointment with an appropriate practitioner such as myself.
The most important takeaway is that we all deserve the ability to feel balanced, positive, and energized about life. While there are many social and interpersonal factors that influence this potential, we want to be sure we are addressing the physiological ones as well. If we don’t have the raw material for the neurotransmitters that provide us a stable mood, psychological and emotional practices can only do so much. If talk and other types of conventional therapy have not given you the results you desire, this is your next step. With amino acid deficiency properly addressed, there will be one less obstacle in your way to experience a full and vigorous life.