Anti-depressants: Hormone of Happy or Hormone of Horror?

By Ben Fuchs | Pharmacist Ben

Anti-depressants: Hormone of Happy or Hormone of Horror?

Image credit: Dees Illustration

(PharmacistBen) If you watch the cartoonish commercials on TV about depression and anti-depressants, you would think that the molecule known as serotonin is a biochemical of bliss and if you’re feeling crappy, you can just take a medicine that bumps up its effects and voila, you’ll be happy. On the other hand, if you go to websites like “SSRI”, which is filled with nightmarish tales about violent behavior, assaults, suicides, suicidal thoughts, murders, and school shootings all associated with SSRIs; or if you read the papers and listen to conspiracy theorists, it’s almost impossible not to be impressed by the link between all of this unpleasantness and drugs that affect serotonin levels. Even the package insert that comes with Prozac and Effexor and Zoloft and other SSRIs pharmaceuticals contain warnings from the purveyors of these poisons about side effects of self-harm and savagery that one would never think would be associated with a drug that’s supposed to make you jump for joy.

So which is it, hormone of happy or hormone of horror? If serotonin is indeed the chemical of calm that you hear about on commercials and if SSRI drugs are indeed the glee-inducing, depression-fighting drugs that your doctor tells you they are, why is that Lilly and Pfizer and all the other manufacturers of these substances are warning patients about side effects like suicide and violent and aggressive behavior?

Well, as it turns out, serotonin, despite what you may have heard, is far from a happiness and joy brain biochemical. While it’s true that serotonin is partially a brain-based neurotransmitter (nerve chemical), it is, involved in far more than cranial chemistry. While 3-4. per cent is located in the brain, in fact, serotonin is found pretty much in all the systems of the body including the blood, skin, lungs, liver, and reproductive organs. And, as it turns out, most of the serotonin, some 90 per cent (or more) is found in the intestines, where it stimulates digestive contractions.

One of the serotonin’s main roles is to help the body eliminate ingested food poisons. Stimulating contractions of digestive tract muscles is the way the body deals with stuff it wants to expel. This is why SSRIs are sometimes used as appetite suppressants; under the influence of serotonin, we just don’t feel like eating. It’s also why one of the most common side effects of SSRIs is digestive disorders, especially cramping, loose stools and diarrhea. And this promotion of intestinal contractions is a clue to the real role of serotonin.
You see, far from being the happy hormone marketers and medical people tell us it is, serotonin is an emergency response hormone. It is involved in helping the body deal with survival threats and challenges; in addition to the ingestion of toxins, it’s protective against circulatory distress, especially bleeding. The term serotonin actually refers to “toning” (tightening) of the “sero” (blood). Sero-tonin is so named because it was first discovered in clotting components that are found in the blood, the little cell fragments called platelets. Thus, serotonin is a major blood clotting and blood vessel contracting chemical. It coagulates the blood and increases blood pressure, essentially preparing the body for an emergency.

So, not only is serotonin not a happy hormone, it is actually a hormone of stress and vigilance. Its main role is to prepare the body to respond to emergency, whether such response requires emptying the digestive tract of poisons by causing intestinal contractions, blood clotting to prepare the body for a fight, hypertension, to prepare the body for a flight or hyper-vigilance to prepare the body for some kind of perceived impending attack.

Contrary to mythology, not only does serotonin NOT signal joy and bliss and happiness, but it actually sends a completely opposite signal, specifically one of preparation for the avoidance of impending doom! Any happiness is associated with serotonin is a result of the body elevating emotional response to prepare its owner for some kind of stress.

Serotonin is a hormone of alertness, and this is what accounts for its link to suicides and violent behaviors which are manifestations of the vigilance response gone crazy. Basically it tells the brain that the body’s survival is at stake; that the digestive tract and the circulatory system (the blood) are being threatened, that the life of the organism is at risk. When you take a drug like Prozac or Effexor or Zoloft or any SSRI type drug you are up-regulating the chemistry of threat and danger. In the short run this may have anti-depressant effects and one of the body’s responses to emergencies is elevations in mood; cortisol which is another stress-related hormone will do the same thing in small amounts. This is one of the ways that the body handles emergencies. Pharmacologically increasing serotonin may in the short run improve affect, but in the long run it will semi-permanently up-regulate the stress response system. In other words, it improves mood by up-regulating the chemistry of threat and danger, which is most certainly NOT a good thing! This is why some studies show that paranoia, aggression, and suicidal thoughts/suicides can be caused by drugs that increase the levels of this stress management chemical. And significantly, this is why rage and aggressive behaviors, violence and suicidal behavior can be associated with drugs that increase the activity of serotonin.

Posted by Ben Fuchs in Health

Premenstrual Breakouts

As if periods weren’t bad enough with the bleeding, fatigue, and general discomfort (if you google “I hate my period” you get over 38,000,000 hits!), many women also deal with acne-like menstrual breakouts during that time of the month. If this is you, read on; you’ll find that there’s a nutrient you can use that may help eliminate and completely prevent period pimples and at the same time reduce other unpleasantries associated with your monthly cycle.

Premenstrual Breakouts

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From a vitamin standpoint, nothing beats the B’s for keeping skin blemish-free, especially Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). Vitamin B6 is one of those vitamins that you don’t hear a lot about, which is unfortunate because it’s involved in so many different important biochemical functions. It’s especially significant for the skin; it was discovered by a Hungarian scientist in the 1930’s, who used in to treat skin lesions in rats. It’s important for the production of serotonin levels and has been shown to improve depression, mood, and even helps increase the vividness of dreams. It’s one of the most important of nutritional substances for cardiac health along with folic acid, B12, and possibly niacin; it forms an important part of the nutritional protocol for protection against heart disease and other circulatory issues. Along with magnesium, it’s been used to treat autism, and Dr. Abram Hoffer, who is considered one of the fathers of nutritional medicine, used it as part of his protocol for treating schizophrenia. Dr. Hoffer also wrote in his book Orthomolecular Nutrition, that vitamin B6 and zinc deficiencies can cause white spots in the fingernails. It’s been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer and it can even help treat hangovers. It’s a critical component of the metabolism of essential fatty acids and female hormones, and this makes it an invaluable supplement for treating non-skin PMS symptoms like swelling, breast tenderness, moodiness, and depression. If you’re using it for any hormone related issues, it’s probably a good idea to take it with magnesium and zinc which work together for fat metabolism.

The B- vitamins, in general, are involved in the building of biological chemicals, and B6 seems to have a special role in the production of female hormones. For example, there is a lot of good literature to support the use of vitamin B6 for the nausea that’s associated with pregnancy, so-called morning sickness, and the part it plays in treating premenstrual breakouts (which are associated with a combination of nutritional deficiency and the drop in estrogen that occurs as a woman’s period approaches) arises from its important role in female hormone chemistry.

While estrogen is associated with a smooth, soft, blemish-free countenance, not too oily but naturally hydrated, as a woman approaches her period and the levels of this critical cutaneous hormone drop, the skin can suffer. Zits, oiliness, and a blotchy tone are just some of the ways the monthly plunge in estrogen production can show up. And that’s where vitamin B6 comes in. The water-soluble nutrient, whose levels are reduced by various factors such as antibiotics, birth control pills, and poor dietary choices, combined with lack of supplementation, plays a key role in sensitizing skin cells to estrogen. Making sure you’ve got enough of it floating in the blood can mitigate some of the effects of estrogen deficiency by making cells more responsive to the estrogen that’s there. In other words, the more B6 is around, the better your estrogen will work.

If you are breaking out when you get your period, that is NOT a normal part of the menstrual cycle. It is a sign that there are some biochemical deficiencies, and given how under-nutriated we are and the kind of foods we eat, we probably shouldn’t be surprised. If you’re one of the many women with multiple uncomfortable symptoms around your period, in addition to B6 you’d be smart to include the other B-vitamins, including niacin, biotin, and B12. Pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5) is particularly helpful especially if the skin is oily. B5 is important for healthy fat hormone production as well as fat processing. It can even be used topically by breaking open a capsule, mixing a little pantothenic acid powder in a cream, and applying directly to blemishes. But even if you’re a woman that’s lucky or healthy enough to have relatively easy periods and you’re just breaking out a little bit, Vitamin B6 at about 100 to 200 mg a day WITH all the other B’s(!!!) can be helpful. Either way, you’ll have dramatic improvements in all of your symptoms. No woman has to suffer from premenstrual or menstrual distress symptoms, period!

Posted by Ben Fuchs in Health

Benefits of Melatonin

By Ben Fuchs | Pharmacist Ben

Did you know melatonin is as much a digestive hormone as it is a brain hormone? Everyone knows you can take melatonin to help you sleep, but it’s actually involved in much more than brain health. In addition to being an important digestive hormone, melatonin is involved in supporting the body’s defense system. It has anti-inflammatory properties, it can help lower blood pressure, stabilize blood sugar, and it’s been used medically for anti-fibrosis properties. And that’s not all. Savvy practioners have used it to treat tinnitus and fibromyalgia as well. It can help build bone. And it’s a powerful anti-aging molecule that helps prevent cancer too. That’s a lot of benefits for a non-toxic supplement that will cost you less 2 cents a dose!

Circadian RhythmLevels of melatonin and the alertness hormone serotonin cycle back and forth, with dark of night and light of day. Serotonin, the hormone which promotes vigilance and awareness of the environment, is secreted in response to the sun as perceived by the pineal gland, while the production of it’s hormonal partner melatonin, predominates at night. This back and forth dance of hormones with day-night cycles is part of what biologists call a circadian (daily) rhythm.

The book “Lights Out” makes the important point that the prevalence of 21st century 24/7 lighting has had a disastrous effect on the melatonin-serotonin manufacturing rhythms which depend on day-night circadian cycle. According to the author T.S Wiley, because of its relationship to eating behavior, one of the effects of the excessive amount of light induced serotonin production is food craving, especially for carbohydrates. How much of a contribution this modern day circadian chaos contributes to the obesity epidemic is hard to say, but at least according to Wiley it’s not insubstantial.

If you want to make sure you’re getting enough melatonin, it’s probably a good idea to take some supplementally at bedtime, 5-7 nights a week. It’ll help you fall and stay asleep and it’ll give you some pretty intense dreams too. Take at least 3mg doses and you could probably take 5 or 6mg. Melatonin is cleared out of the body quickly and it’s pretty much benign stuff. I like the sublingual kind that dissolves under tongue. They get right into the blood through microscopic sublingual capillaries and go to work really fast. I feel drowsy within minutes. There’s also melatonin found in foods. Rice corn mustard seed peanuts and walnuts all contain substantial amounts of melatonin. Tart cherries have especially high concentrations of melatonin. Just a couple or three can get you nearly 1.5mg of the important, multi-beneficial hormone.

Posted by Ben Fuchs in Health

Serotonin: Sensations of Satisfaction

By Ben Fuchs | Pharmacist Ben

Serotonin: Sensations of SatisfactionWhen I was a kid, I knew a girl who had a true obsession with sidewalk cracks. Just as the popular rhyme says, she believed that stepping on one would result in the fracture of her mother’s back. Despite merciless teasing from the neighborhood boys, she stepped carefully around every crack, slowing us all down and making somewhat of a spectacle of herself.

Today I understand this kind of ritualistic compulsion to be the sign a mental health issue known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which affects 2.3% of American adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. While trauma, genetics and nutritional deficiencies often contribute to OCD, a condition shared by victims of all mental disorders is a disruption in the production of serotonin, one of the central nervous system’s most important chemical substances. Furthermore, we have learned that much of what passes for normal, day-to-day worry and anxiety may also be associated with deficiencies in this vital mediator of brain chemistry.

According to the Hypoglycemic Health Association of Australia, serotonin “conveys the positive sensations of satiety, satisfaction and relaxation.” Physicians and pharmaceutical companies are also aware of the link between serotonin deficiency and mental illness. Since their debut in the late 1980‘s, pharmaceuticals that regulate the presence of serotonin have become a mainstay of modern psychiatric drug therapy. The so-called serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SRIs) enhance the activity of this critical brain chemical and account for almost $6 billon of the estimated $307 billion dollars Americans spent on prescription drugs in 2010. Of course SRIs are not without side effects. Apathy, nausea, vomiting and headaches are commonly experienced by SRI patients.

One of the key factors behind low levels of serotonin that play such an important role in the mental health of so many Americans is the relative deficiency of the amino acid, tryptophan, which is required to produce serotonin. Given the low protein intake of many Americans combined with common digestive impairment afflictions that compromise amino acid absorption, in most people, the amount of tryptophan naturally available for serotonin manufacture is often far too low. Additionally, because tryptophan is required to make niacin, when intake of niacin is not sufficient, tryptophan will be shunted towards the manufacture of niacin at the expense of serotonin production.

Lastly, Fructose Malabsorbtion Syndrome also creates shortages in the tryptophan available for serotonin production. One out of three Americans suffer from this fructose metabolism issue, which causes high blood levels of the ubiquitous sugar. Fructose binds with tryptophan, thus rendering the amino acid unavailable for other chemical reactions.

If you suspect mental health can be improved by increasing serotonin levels, the first thing you want to do is supplement with 5-HTP. 5-HTP is a direct precursor to serotonin and research shows 5HTP may improve mental health. For example, numerous clinical studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of 5-HTP in the treatment of depression. In one study, the effects of 5-HTP were compared with those of fluvoxamine, a Prozac-like drug used in Europe. The 5-HTP patients showed an improved response with fewer and less-severe side effects than the fluvoxamine group. Start off with 50 mg and move up to up to 300 mg daily, taken at bedtime. Supplementing with Niacin (Vitamin B-3) will also help ensure enough tryptophan is available for serotonin manufacture. Vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine) is also an important cofactor for the production of serotonin. Try 50 to 100 mg dose, twice daily, of each B-3 and B-6. As always, when supplementing with one B-vitamin it’s best to take it with the entire B-complex.

Finally, magnesium is not only required for converting tryptophan into serotonin, but it is also commonly deficient in the standard American diet. According to research published in the Journal of Neural Transmission, magnesium exerts an anti-depressant effect that may “involve an interaction with the serotonergic system”. Taking 1000 mg of magnesium at bedtime has a relaxing effect and also improves serotonin levels.

Whether it’s OCD, anxiety or full-blown depression, mental health issues are typically associated with low levels of the important brain chemical, serotonin. While the medical approach manipulates neurochemistry, drugs always come with the cost of unpleasant side-effects. Because nutritional substances are non-toxic and deficiencies are associated with low levels of serotonin, strategic supplementation is the best path to correct biochemical imbalances without adverse effects.

Posted by Ben Fuchs in Health