Serotonin Myths: High Serotonin Blues, Part 1

This is Part 1 in a series on high serotonin. Check out Part 2 and Part 3 to learn even more.
A vast majority of anti-depressant drugs, natural treatments for depression, and much of how the mainstream medical institution views mental health is hinged on one theory: serotonin is the “happy” neurotransmitter. There are thousands of books, blogs, articles and podcasts about increasing serotonin levels to combat depression. But what if our ideas about serotonin are fundamentally wrong?
Questioning mainstream medicine is never fun or easy. It also doesn’t tend to make you many friends. But I still managed to find myself in the mess of detangling the serotonin web, trying to sift fact from fiction, reality from hyperbole. And with good reason. I had my own personal experience to reckon with.

Tryptophan, 5-HTP and Serotonin: My Path to Happy?

Mood issues were one of the main reasons I started researching health and nutrition a few years ago. I found right away that most natural health gurus gushed about serotonin’s “happy” and “feel-good” benefits. There was a general consensus that serotonin deficiency is a rampant condition that causes everything from depression to insomnia. The conclusion? Most folks need more serotonin. And, hey, I must be one of those folks.
Tryptophan and 5-HTP supplements are all the rage in the natural health community, since these are used by the body to make serotonin. It makes sense: they increase serotonin, and serotonin makes you happy. And who doesn’t want to be happy?
It all sounded well and good to me. So off I went to procure my first bottle of 5-HTP. I followed the dosage instructions of a popular mood therapy book, and went about my life, waiting for the happiness to set in.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite what happened.

Nightmare on Serotonin Street

It was subtle at first. Just a general brain fog, a touch of apathy. My sleep wasn’t improving as much I wanted, so I referred back to my mood book and upped my 5-HTP dosage to the next recommended level.
That’s when a stronger sense of apathy set in. I felt unnaturally listless and helpless. Almost like my real self was suddenly trapped in a thick fog in my mind, unable to reach the surface.
And for the first time in my life, I was exhibiting definite signs of depression. I had gone from occasional mood swings and low moods to checking off all the boxes in a depression questionnaire!
Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it yet. After all, I was following recommendations for raising my serotonin, which was supposed to stop depression. There was only one theory about serotonin and therefore only one answer: I must need more serotonin.
Following that line of logic, I raised my dosage of 5-HTP again (though still within recommended levels). It seemed so harmless at the time, but it wasn’t.
Within 15 minutes of my first dose, a feeling of intense panic set in. Not a thing in my life had changed in those 15 minutes, and yet suddenly it felt like my entire world was falling apart. My heart was pounding, my palms were sweating, my mind was racing. I genuinely felt I must be losing my mind.
After an hour or so, as the feeling slowly began to fade, as my heart rate returned to normal, a very small but important thought popped into my head: “This started when I took the 5-HTP.”
To test this budding theory, I stopped taking 5-HTP completely (to be honest, I was so freaked out I chucked my bottle right into the trash can). I felt much better within hours and completely normal within a few days. And in finding this one answer, I had opened a whole new jar of questions about serotonin.

Getting Some Answers… and Even More Questions

It’s funny to think that only by blindly following mainstream ideas about serotonin could I come to a place where I dared to question them.

One of the drawbacks of taking your health into your own hands is that sometimes you don’t find out you’re wrong until you’ve pushed the limits and fallen flat on your face. I’ve done it a few times. It’s never fun, but it’s always a learning experience.

A few months after the 5-HTP incident, I dared to experiment with tryptophan and endured a similar reaction (though I caught on earlier so it didn’t escalate into crazy scary). That’s when I started seriously questioning what I’d read about 5-HTP and tryptophan, which led to questioning modern ideas about serotonin and antidepressants as well.

I’ve learned a lot, but I definitely don’t have all the answers… in fact, I’ve found just as many questions as answers along the way. But even without all the answers, this is too important of a subject to sit on the back burner. After all, our mental health is at stake.

Stay Tuned…

There is a lot more to say on the subject, and I’ve barely scratched the surface today. So it seems I’m destined to do a series of serotonin posts, and I will be posting more on the topics of tryptophan, serotonin syndrome and high serotonin symptoms in the weeks to come.

Update: I’ve written more in my series on serotonin! Check out Part 2 and Part 3 if you want to know more.

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25 Comments

  1. Although my reaction to 5-HTP wasn’t as intense as yours, I tried taking it based on recommendations from The Mood Cure. It didn’t help me at all. In fact, I actually felt worse while taking it. I’m sorry for your bad experience. The more I read and research about health and wellness (and it’s a lot) the more I am convinced that there is no “cure” that works for everyone. Our bodies are unique and individual. Good luck on your continuing journey to health, and thank you for sharing your experiences.

    • Thanks for commenting, so interesting to hear that others have had similar experiences with 5-HTP. I agree that there are so many variables in people’s individual health, there really are no blanket cures across the board that work for everyone.

      Some of The Mood Cure’s recommendations were helpful to me (eating plenty of protein is probably the most important for me) and other were way off base for my body. There are some biological reasons for these varying reactions, but it can get complicated and I’m a long way from fully grasping it all!

      • I agree. Increasing the protein and fat in my diet have made a big (positive) difference for me as well. And some other aminos do help me, just not 5HTP, apparently. Thanks for the post; I’m looking forward to your next installment. :-)

  2. She’s back! :)

    I tried taking 5-HTP and serotonin after reading The Diet Cure. I didn’t have the restful sleep and good mood I had hoped to have. The only thing that I have had good luck with is making sure to eat enough carbs throughout the day. I also make sure to have a nice dose of sugar before bed for restful sleep :).

    I’m looking forward to reading your future posts on serotonin!

  3. I had my eyes opened to the ‘serotonin myth’ by Ray Peat’s work earlier this year. Very much looking forward to this series!! :) Kate

    • When I first started looking into other theories on serotonin, Ray Peat’s work really stood out. His conclusions explained a lot of questions I had. I took the rest of his work a lot more seriously after that!

  4. Congratulations on being able to add up your experiences/symptoms and getting an answer. I believe that many of our health issues can be solved by people’s just sitting down and reviewing their behavior.

  5. Hi Elizabeth- I also didn’t understand the dangers of serotonin and tryptophan before reading Ray Peat. So far, he has been the most helpful in figuring out my low thyroid problems.

  6. I find the most effective thing for me is high quality St Johns Wort – I tried a pharma anti-d and liked it but couldn’t sleep. So Hypericum in the day and Neuro Calm by Metagenics for night time. Also B12 sublingual and injections. Thanks for the info re seratonin.

    • Mental health definitely seems to be a complicated issue, especially when it comes to common treatments. I notice reviews of natural depression remedies are all over the place–some people will testify to miraculous results, while others have terrible experiences similar to mine. I think most depression remedies impact far more than just serotonin levels in the body (i.e. increasing other neurotransmitter levels like dopamine, or altering thyroid/hormonal function, etc.). Having so many factors at play could explain the wide variance of reactions.

  7. The thing to remember is that we are each different and have different needs. I can take low doses of 5-HTP but cant take Saint Johns Wart or other anti-depressants at all.. They totally whack me out.. Looking forward to reading more about your journey..

    • I agree, there is a lot of variability as to how any individual reacts to a substance or food, for reasons that can’t be easily explained by how we currently understand biology. At that point it is definitely best to gauge your own reaction and follow your instincts.

  8. I have taken ssri’s medication for many years and it was definitely a great help – made me feel normal and able to function and recover from severe depression. I have now weaned from them and am trying natural alternatives – the ones you write about – so I hope I don’t have the reaction you have had!

    • Why different people have such opposing reactions to the same substances is definitely beyond my scope of knowledge and experience, but in the end I think it all comes down to listening to your own body and going from there.

  9. Hey this is my exact experience!! I’ve tried everything serotonin, and finally the doctor said try this SSRI you’ll fell better he told me! Yeah right, brain fog and social anxiety slowly set in and stayed for like 2 weeks.

  10. Thank you for this article. I am about to try 5-HTP for my husband and will watch for this reaction. I feel that each persons response to supplements is different because of different underlying reasons as to why we are having the problem. My husband had a very severe traumatic brain injury and we are trying to bring his brain chemical/hormone balance back to normal. He still takes anxiety meds and sleep meds and trying 5-HTP is part of our attempt to get him off these last two prescriptions. He has already been able to come off siezure meds and has reduced pain meds dramatically and is off antidepressants. I have learned so much on this journey and am thankful for first hand testimonies like yours. So helpful!

    • That’s so awesome that you’ve been having success with natural alternatives. I agree, how foods and supplements affect us can be a very individual thing, and it’s important to listen to our bodies and pay attention to how we react. Good luck!

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