Depression treatments can be expensive, involve ongoing medical or psychiatric appointments, and have numerous and sometimes life-impacting side effects. Fortunately, prescription medications are not the last answer when it comes to treating depression. Non-prescription dietary supplements like 5-HTP and SAM-e are rapidly gaining popularity as safe, effective, low-cost treatments for those wishing to get depression under control once and for all.
What Is 5-HTP? 5-Hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, is a naturally occurring amino acid used by the brain to make the neurotransmitter serotonin. Mood, sleeping patterns, and the perception of pain and happiness are all regulated in large part by serotonin. 5-HTP is itself the chemical precursor to serotonin, which means that without it, serotonin production does not occur. Taking a 5-HTP supplement amounts to giving the brain more of the material it needs to make serotonin, and increasing serotonin levels is considered key in depression treatments.
What Is SAM-e? SAM-e, or S-adenosyl-L-methionine, is found throughout the human body in the form of a naturally occurring chemical which plays a vital role in cellular growth and repair. It is also helps synthesize mood-effecting neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine plays an important role in controlling voluntary movement, feelings of motivation, the sense of punishment and reward, moods, memory, and learning. Studies have shown that people experiencing low moods tend to have less SAM-e present in their bodies, and SAM-e levels tend to naturally decline as we age. Some researchers theorize that SAM-e influences the expression of genes involved in depression, and may change the way neurotransmitters are transported in the brain. Some indicate SAM-e may even have a direct effect on the creation of new neurotransmitters, making it unique among depression treatments.
Are 5-HTP and SAM-e Effective Depression Treatments? A number of clinical trials have been conducted to determine how effective 5-HTP is for treating depression, with favorable results. One study indicated 5-HTP was as effective as the selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor fluvoxamine (brand name Luvox). Repeatedly, 5-HTP's ability to increase the brain's natural serotonin production has been shown to relieve depression by elevating mood, promoting healthy sleep patterns, and reducing anxiety.
Similar positive results have been obtained in clinical trials of SAM-e. A study conducted by the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality suggested that SAM-e use causes significant improvement in depression symptoms, and that in some cases, the supplement is a more effective depression treatment than tricyclic antidepressants. A growing body of research indicates SAM-e's influence on neurological activity has a positive impact on mood and behavior, making it among the most effective depression treatments.
What About Side Effects? Anyone taking prescription depression treatments is likely to experience at least one, and in many cases, a combination of the following common side effects: nausea and vomiting, inability to orgasm, weight gain, dizziness, constipation, fatigue, headaches, dry mouth, diarrhea, daytime drowsiness, insomnia, heart palpitations, tremors, muscle pain, agitation, disorientation and confusion, and in some cases, an increase in suicidality. Research shows up to 45% of people taking an SSRI will experience a decline in sexual function, more than 20% will gain weight, and 2%-4% will experience an increase in suicidal thoughts.
5-HTP and SAM-e have been shown to be remarkably free of side effects. The most commonly reported side effect of both is mild gastrointestinal upset, which usually subsides once the body acclimates to the supplements. Most would consider this a minor inconvenience at worst when compared to the common side effects of prescription depression treatments.