Don’t forget that serotonin takes a dip in winter when the days are shorter and there is less light. If you’re currently using tryptophan or 5-HTP to boost low serotonin and ease low serotonin symptoms – worry-type anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, ruminations, PMS, irritability, negativity, perfectionism, obsessiveness, lack of confidence, anger/rage, afternoon/evening cravings – you may find you need to increase your dose for a few months.
This will especially be the case if you check off winter blues or more severe winter anxiety (yes it’s a thing and published in the research) on the low serotonin symptoms list.
I shared this on Facebook last week and the feedback ranged from surprised to curious to confirmatory.
In this blog I’m sharing some of the feedback and some of the supporting evidence, as well as other factors to consider.
The addition of 5-HTP in the morning and a light box
Kathy thanked me for the reminder and shared the changes she makes in the winter months:
Thanks for the reminder! I need to increase my dose this time of year… I can feel myself feeling “down”. I take 500 mg Tryptophan before bed and 100 mg 5-HTP in the morning before breakfast. I also use a light box in the morning while eating breakfast, which helps.
This is an increase from her typical dosing in the spring and summer when she only takes tryptophan at night before bed.
She also only uses her light box or SAD (seasonal affective disorder) lamp in winter. You can read more about SAD/full spectrum lamps here. They are also a wonderful way to boost serotonin and mood in the winter.
My daughter’s anxiety and OCD goes through the roof
Mark shared about his daughter’s anxiety and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder):
Every year from October – March, my daughter’s anxiety and OCD goes through the roof. At first we thought it was the transition from summer to school, then the craziness of the winter holidays and suspected mold allergy. Now, based on this information, a winter/less light induced dip in serotonin may be an additional factor we hadn’t considered. We’ll try adjusting her 5-HTP dose and see if we gain some improvement. Thanks for the tip.
It’s really common for families to attribute the more severe anxiety and OCD to the stress and craziness of the winter holidays. And of course suspected mold issues do need to be looked into and addressed. But even then, the dip in serotonin can compound all these factors.
Planned tryptophan bump for Christmas sugar cravings and holiday family stress
Carol shared this about her plans to temporarily boost serotonin:
I am one of those light weights that was able to do one 500 mg pill a day of tryptophan. But I do think that it would help to bump it up to two a day to get me through the Christmas sugar cravings AND holiday family stressful get togethers! I’m all about taking the minimum effective dose but this is helpful to know that there could be a temporary boost just to get you through this time!
It’s wonderful that 500mg tryptophan is enough for her and I’m all for a minimum effective dose! However the winter dip in serotonin – and increased sugar cravings and family stress – is a common reason many folks bump up the dose for a month or more.
You may also find you made the change intuitively. Linda shared this: “I had made the adjustment. I just did not realize the reason why.”
A question about timing of 5-HTP and what to do in Spring
Suzanne shared that she uses a SAD light (also called a light box) and finds that it helps. She asks:
Can I just take the 5-HTP on days with no sun or is it better to have it build up in my system? When spring rolls around, do I taper off or can I just stop taking it?
This is my feedback: I haven’t had anyone just use 5-HTP on cloudy days but it’s worth a trial. If you are noticing increased anxiety and mood changes only on cloudy days and using the SAD lamp on those days helps, then using 5-HTP on those days may be enough. If not, use 5-HTP consistently/daily through the winter months.
Amino acids do not need to be tapered but I find my clients do better when they are reduced over a few weeks. Some folks also choose to just stop taking them and do fine.
I appreciate all the feedback and the great questions. I’ll report back when I hear how Mark’s daughter does with the adjusted 5-HTP and how Carol does with the bump in tryptophan (and any other feedback I get from these folks).
Some of the research and possible mechanisms
There are many studies that support serotonin changes and seasonal variations in mood. Here are just two of them:
- Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain “Alterations in monoaminergic neurotransmission in the brain are thought to underlie seasonal variations in mood, behaviour, and affective disorders… turnover of serotonin by the brain was lowest in winter. Moreover, the rate of production of serotonin by the brain was directly related to the prevailing duration of bright sunlight… Our findings are further evidence for the notion that changes in release of serotonin by the brain underlie mood seasonality and seasonal affective disorder.”
- Sunshine, Serotonin, and Skin: A Partial Explanation for Seasonal Patterns in Psychopathology? “one contributory facet may be the role of sunshine on human skin. Human skin has an inherent serotonergic system that appears capable of generating serotonin.”
Other factors to consider: low vitamin D, sugar, pyroluria and phenols
There are other low-serotonin related factors to consider too:
- Low vitamin D is common in the winter and sufficient levels are needed for making serotonin. This paper, Vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: relevance for ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior describes how“Brain serotonin is synthesized from tryptophan by tryptophan hydroxylase 2, which is transcriptionally activated by vitamin D hormone. Inadequate levels of vitamin D (∼70% of the population) and omega-3 fatty acids are common, suggesting that brain serotonin synthesis is not optimal.”
- The increased consumption of sugar at this time can lead to reduced zinc, magnesium and B vitamins (like vitamin B6 and thiamine) and this can further reduce serotonin levels, which relies on these nutrients as cofactors for production. By boosting serotonin with additional tryptophan or 5-HTP you can actually reduce some of the cravings.
- If you have the social anxiety condition called pyroluria, the added stress of family and holiday gatherings can also contribute to zinc and vitamin B6 being dumped, and further impacting serotonin production.
- Christmas tree phenols can be a trigger for anger, meltdowns, anxiety, hyperactivity, insomnia, aggression, self-injury and autistic symptoms in susceptible individuals
Resources if you are new to using tryptophan and 5-HTP as supplements
If you are new to using the amino acids as supplements, here is the Amino Acids Mood Questionnaire from The Antianxiety Food Solution (you can see the low serotonin symptoms here) and a brief overview here, Anxiety and targeted individual amino acid supplements: a summary.
If you suspect low serotonin or low levels of any of the neurotransmitters and do not yet have my book, The Antianxiety Food Solution – How the Foods You Eat Can Help You Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood, and End Cravings, I highly recommend getting it and reading it before jumping in and using amino acids so you are knowledgeable. And be sure to share it with the team you or your loved one is working with.
The book doesn’t include product names (per the publisher’s request) so this blog, The Antianxiety Food Solution Amino Acid and Pyroluria Supplements, lists the amino acid products that I use with my individual clients and those in my group programs.
Have you noticed this winter dip in serotonin and made adjustments to your 5-HTP or tryptophan? And do you feel less anxious, less obsessive, not as low and with fewer sugar cravings?
Do you find that using a SAD lamp/full spectrum light at this time helps even further?
Were you aware that serotonin dipped in winter and could be playing a role for you? Or did you think it was just the stress and overwhelm of the holidays (and /or some of the emotional upheaval some of us face at this time)?
If you’re a practitioner, have you seen this with clients or patients?
Have you also noticed you need to adjust your GABA and other amino acids at this time too (both GABA and dopamine show seasonality)?
Feel free to ask your questions here too.