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When your brain's emotional equipment needs a tune-up, you get clues: you do not sleep well, you worry too much, you start feeling overwhelmed, you lose your enthusiasm or your ability to concentrate.

If you are often feeling depressed, anxious or stressed, you are not alone. We are in a bad-mood epidemic, a hundred times more likely to have significant mood problems than people born a hundred years ago. And these problems are on the rise. Adult rates of depression and anxiety have tripled since 1990 and over 80 percent of those who consult medical doctors today complain of excessive stress. Even our children are in trouble, with at least one in 10 suffering from significant mood disorders. Our mood problems are increasing so fast that by 2020 they will outrank AIDS, accidents and violence as the primary causes of early death and disability.

It is clear that our moods are deteriorating at unprecedented rates. What is not clear is why. What is this tidal wave of emotional malaise all about? Are our lives so much more unhappy than they were one hundred years ago or even 10 years ago? It is true that we are facing some unprecedented adversity in the 21st century. But even if it is the high pressure or the absence of family support or the terrorist threat, for example, why are we now so unresponsive to traditionally reliable remedies like long vacations, psychotherapy and spiritual counsel? Why are we forced to turn more and more to medication for solace?

I propose that much of our increasing emotional distress stems from easily correctable malfunctions in our brain and body chemistry-malfunctions that are primarily the result of critical, unmet nutritional needs. More important, I propose that a complete yet easy-to-implement nutritional repair plan can actually start to eliminate in 24 hours what I call our "false moods."

Some negative feelings are unavoidable and even beneficial. They are what I call "true emotions." These true, genuine responses to the real difficulties we encounter in life can be hard to take. They can even be unbearable at times, depending on the kinds of ordeals we face. But they also can be vitally important. True grief moves us through our losses, true fear warns us of danger, true anger can defend us from abuse and true shame can teach us to grow and change. These true emotions typically pass or diminish naturally and even when they are repressed or misdirected, they can usually be relieved through counseling. But when we suffer for no justifiable reason; when the pain of a broken heart does not mend like a broken bone; when rest, psychotherapy, prayer and meditation can make little impact-then we must suspect the emotional impostor, the meaningless biochemical error-the "false mood."

You should not have to live with these kinds of distorted moods on a regular basis. It is like having an engine that sputters, preventing you from having a smooth emotional ride. When your brain's emotional equipment needs a tune-up, you get clues: you do not sleep well, you worry too much, you start feeling overwhelmed, you lose your enthusiasm or your ability to concentrate. You might also start depending on chocolate, wine or marijuana to get some relief. If you experience these kinds of symptoms frequently, you may have just come to accept them, assuming them simply to be unfortunate features of your basic personality. But chances are you are wrong. Now you have an opportunity to discover your true emotional nature.

Your brain is responsible for most of your feelings, both true and false. In concert with some surprisingly brain-like areas of your heart and gut, it transmits your feelings through four highly specialized and potent kinds of mood molecules. If it has plenty of all four, it keeps you as happy as you can possibly be, given your particular life circumstances. But if your brain runs low on these mood transmitters-whether because of a minor genetic miscue, because it has used them up coping with too much stress or because you are not eating the specific foods it needs-it stops producing normal emotions on a consistent basis. Instead, it starts hitting false emotional notes, like a piano out of tune.

After more than 30 years of intensive, worldwide investigation, most of the false moods and their causes have been identified by one of the fastest-growing fields of science-neuroscience, the field that studies the workings and effects of the brain. Drug companies have been using this information to create products that can give our emotional equipment a quick charge. But that is not the same thing as a real repair job. Fortunately, the emotional tune-up that we need so badly now is readily available. In fact, the repair tools we need for this crucial effort are shockingly simple.

They are specific foods and nutrient supplements, particularly amino acid supplements that are so exactly what the brain needs that they can begin to correct emotional malfunctions in just 24 hours.

This is the secret: There are 22 different kinds of amino acids in high-protein foods like chicken, fish, beef, eggs and cheese. You may have heard them referred to as the building blocks of protein. Each amino has its own name and unique duties to perform but only a few very special aminos can serve as fuels for the brain's four mood engines. Just five or six of these amino acids, taken as supplements, can effectively reverse all four of the brain deficiencies that cause false moods.

Each of the four mood engines in your brain needs a different amino acid fuel. The lower your access to amino fuel, the more false mood symptoms you can develop. The question is how much "gas" do you have in each of your engines? How do you know when you have run too low? How can you fill them up? Which amino brain fuels do you need? Where can you get them? How long will it take? You will soon learn what the best brain foods are for you and how to find and use the amino acid supplements that will jump-start all of your emotional engines and keep them fired up.

The four emotion generators in your brain are called "neurotransmitters." Some of their specific names will probably be familiar to you: serotonin, catecholamines, GABA and endorphin. Each of these four neurotransmitters has a distinctly different effect on your mood, depending largely on the supply of its particular amino acid fuel available. A well stocked brain produces true emotions. Depending on your life circumstances, you will generally feel emotionally positive, if your key neurotransmitter levels are high.

A poorly stocked brain produces false moods. If you drop too low in any of the key neurotransmitters, you will tend to develop a specific set of defective moods as a result. If you are high in serotonin, you are positive, confident, flexible and easygoing. If you are sinking in serotonin, you will tend to become negative, obsessive, worried, irritable and sleepless.

Let us take a close look at the mechanics of this mood type. The brain's serotonin quadrant needs to be brimming with molecules at all times. When it is, your brain can cheerfully fire away with this ready fuel supply, transmitting positive feelings and thoughts. If not, these happy reactions are blocked. But that does not simply leave you feeling emotionally blank. Unfortunately, a decrease in serotonin can produce the reverse of every warm, happy feeling that adequate serotonin would normally allow you to experience: instead of seeing your glass as half full, you see it as half empty. Instead of feeling proud of your accomplishments, all you can think of is what you have not accomplished. Instead of a sound sleep, you get insomnia. Instead of enjoying your family members, you are irritated by them. Instead of peace, you have anxiety. Instead of looking forward to life, you may regard it with dread and even have thoughts of suicide.

Symptoms of serotonin deficiency include: experiencing dark, pessimistic thoughts; often feeling worried, anxious, self-critical or guilty; abusive behavior; being a perfectionist, neatnic or control freak, a computer, TV or work addict; a dislike for dark weather or clear-cut, fall-winter depression (SAD); anxiety or panic attacks (your heart races, it is hard to breathe); PMS or menopausal moodiness (tears, anger, depression); are you a night owl or do you find it hard to get to sleep even though you want to? Have you had fibromyalgia (unexplained muscle pain) or TMJ (pain, tension and grinding associated with your jaw)? Have you had suicidal thoughts or plans? Do you find relief from any of the above symptoms through exercise?

Precious serotonin is synthesized in your body from tryptophan, an amino acid (protein building block) found in foods like turkey, beef and cheese. Tryptophan first converts into a substance called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which then coverts directly into serotonin. This crucial three-step process can be a short-step process and can be short-circuited by a number of things. For example, if there is not enough tryptophan in your diet-a problem for many of us-your body cannot manufacture enough 5-HTP or serotonin to keep you happy. Or your natural production of serotonin may be inhibited by chemicals in your food such as caffeine, alcohol or the artificial sweetener aspartame. Your serotonin production can even be disrupted if you are pregnant or not getting enough sunlight or exercise. Bouts of extreme stress can also dry up your pool of this emotionally vital brain chemical. Finally, you may have inherited a genetic tendency to under produce serotonin, one that can be aggravated by all of the above.

No matter what the cause of your drop in serotonin, it does not mean that you are doomed to languish in this particular mood pit for the rest of your life. Even the saggiest serotonin levels can be quickly elevated, allowing you to experience the full range of emotion that nature intended for you.

The 24-Hour 5-HTP Transformation
The inexpensive nutrient supplement 5-HTP, made from an African bean, is the almost instant solution to most low-serotonin problems. It can be found in every health food store and many pharmacies in America. Your body can make its own 5-HTP to convert into serotonin but here is one catch: It must have enough tryptophan on hand from food to make it out of and chances are it does not. If you take a 5-HTP supplement though, your serotonin production will no longer be dependent on the tryptophan you may or may not get in food. That means that you can quickly, yet naturally, replenish your serotonin stores and begin to feel the return of your true emotional self in minutes.

Although 5-HTP has been studied and used extensively in Japan and Europe since before 1980, our clinic began using it only when it became available in the United States in 1997. Since then we have seen hundreds of almost instant transformations in mood as a direct result of its use.

As an antidepressant, 5-HTP is so effective that is has repeatedly matched or outperformed many of the most established antidepressant drugs, including Prozac, without the negative side effects so often associated with these drugs. In a 1980 study of 99 patients who had been deeply depressed for an average of nine years, almost half achieved complete recovery while others experienced significant improvement after being given 5-HTP supplements. The study's author, Dr. J. J. Van Heile, had this to say about the benefits of 5-HTP: "I have never in 20 years used an agent which (1) was effective so quickly; (2) restored the patients so completely to the persons they had been and their partners had known and (3) was so entirely without side effects." Numerous other studies also attest to 5-HTP's remarkable safety and effectiveness, even when compared to prescription antidepressants.

My staff and I have been amazed at how quickly 5-HTP can lift the spirits of clients who had been depressed for so long that they had forgotten what it was like to be cheerful and optimistic. Within a day or two after starting their 5-HTP, they typically report that their feelings of anxiety and negativity have evaporated, that their sleep has improved and that their self-esteem has been restored. Amazingly, we have seen these 5-HTP transformations take place before our very eyes in as little as 10 minutes. We have watched as surly teens turned into friendly humans, cranky adults turned into comedians and shy, self-conscious people turned into real charmers.

At first when you take 5-HTP you will feel the difference, typically within 15 minutes, but your mood will be noticeably elevated for only a few hours. That is why most people need to take these supplements at least twice a day. Middle or late afternoon and nine or 10 P.M. are usually the best times to take them but take them earlier if your symptoms trouble you in the morning. I recommend 50 mg as the initial dosage of 5-HTP. If you need more, increase the dosage to 100 mg then 150 mg-not to exceed 150 mg per dose.

As you nourish your brain's serotonin zone with these amino fuels, your serotonin levels will rise, eventually to capacity. After that you will be able to count on improved moods all the time, yet you won't need any more supplements to keep them that way. At some point in the next few weeks or months, your brain will give you a signal to let you know that you have done it-you have filled up on serotonin. How will you know? Maybe you will get too relaxed, even sleepy during the day; maybe you will have a mild headache after a dose. Most people, though, just forget to take their 5-HTP or other supplements after a while and realize that they feel fine without them.

Editor's Note:
Information from this article is from The Mood Cure by Julia Ross, M.A. Copyright© Julia Ross, 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

For a comprehensive four-step program to rebalancing your emotional chemistry and rediscovering your natural sense of well-being, we recommend you acquire a copy the book. It not only details the problems but provides mood type questionnaires and "tool kits" to help you identify symptoms and confront conditions, details diets critical to building and maintaining adequate serotonin levels, helps you build a master supplements plan and importantly alerts you to potential contra interaction between supplements and medication.

The author also stresses that individuals on medication or experiencing serious mood or personality problems consult with a qualified health care professional.

Julia Ross, MA

Julia Ross, M.A., author of The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Rebalance Your Emotional Chemistry and Rediscover Your Natural Sense of Well-being and the bestseller, The Diet Cure, has been directing San Francisco Bay area counseling programs since 1980. Ross is executive director of Recovery Systems in Mill Valley, California, a clinic that treats mood, eating and addiction problems with nutrient therapy and biochemical rebalancing.