Are There Safe Alternatives to Antidepressant Drugs? by Julia Ross

Serotonin deficiency is far and away the most common mood problem we see at our Recovery System Clinic in Mill Valley, California.  Serotonin starvation is a virtual epidemic in North America, inflicting its unique brand of dark-cloud misery on people of all ages, sexes and walks of life.

The reason that serotonin  is so emotionally vital is that it is our primary defense against both depression and anxiety.  Serotonin deficiency is a factor in many seemingly unrelated psychological and physical symptoms, ranging from panic and irritability to insomnia, PMS and muscle pain.  Some “dark cloud” types have only a few of the possible deficiency symptoms but many have almost all of them.  Yet they tend to function well, typically getting more done because of their tendency toward perfectionism, than other, less mood-impaired people.  As a result, they often assume that they are just stuck with some unfortunate but indelible personality quirks and try to work around them.  Some try serotonin-boosting drugs, like Prozac, with mixed results and resign themselves to a somewhat better but still limited emotional life.

However, concerns about eh safety of even the most common antidepressant medications are reaching an all time high since 2003 when Prozac and similar drugs Paxil, Effector’s, and Zoloft were banned for use by UK children due to their side effects and increased risk  of suicide.  This prompted the FDA to issue warnings about Paxil for use by US children.  Amidst the concern about the safety of these drugs, mental health professional and their patients have been looking hard for alternative solutions.

Fortunately, there are safe yet surprisingly effective alternatives to these controversial drugs.  This alternative approach is based on 25 years of clinical experience.  In the early 80’s when I began directing counselling programs in the San Francisco Bay Area, I discovered that even the most intensive counselling techniques were often no match for clients’ depression and anxiety.  Unlike most other psychotherapists, who have also come to acknowledge the limitations of conventional counselling approaches, I did not turn to pharmaceuticals for help.  Instead, I began hiring nutritionists and exploring research on how the brain uses specific ingredients in protein-containing foods to produce its own potent natural antidepressant, notably serotonin.  By 1988, my Recovery Clinic staff and I had began to recommend a high protein diet and amino acid supplements targeted to the specific brain cells that produce serotonin, as well as the three other primary mood-enhancing neurotransmitters:  endorphins, catecholamines, and GABA.  Most importantly, they found that the amino acid 5HTP (5 hydroxy tryptophan) quickly decreased winter and year-round depression and other symptoms of serotonin deficiency.  The effects of inexpensive and readily available 5HTP could typically be felt within 24 hours, just as the research studies had indicated.  A study by Eli Lilly, published in 2001, showed that 5HTP increased serotonin activity more that four times more effectively that Prozac did.  Head-to-head clinical studies have found 5HTP at least as effective as SSRI’s without the side effects.

In my book, The Mood Cure,  I note that research on the positive mood impact of omega-3 fats and other key nutrients like the antidepressant B vitamin, folic acid, had made for even more effective nutritional brain repair.  In a review of 100 of our clinic’s clients, published in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry in 2001, 98 percent experienced a dramatic improvement in mood within seven days.


Not only does this holistic approach offer methods to improve mood, the same methods can also stop carb cravings and eliminate weight gain.  Since most antidepressants are now known to contribute to weight gain, this is double good news for those with both mood-boosting and weight-loss goals.  The use of amino acids and other nutrient supplements can make “good-mood foods” like protein and vegetables more appealing than “bad-mood foods” like ice cream and pasta.  It turns out that these key nutrients-by turning up our comforting neurotransmitters-turn off our cravings for comfort foods.  When a well-nourished brain begins transmitting a new sense of well-being, we simply don’t need the lift we used to get from carbs.

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