Amino Acid Therapy
Amino Acid Therapy and a Pro-Recovery Diet for Transforming the Addicted Brain
Most addicts are significantly depleted in many nutrients and benefit from supplementation with vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. The most crucial nutrients for early recovery, however, are amino acids.
First of all, what are amino acids? Amino acid is the collective name for the 20 kinds of protein found in foods like beef, pork, chicken, and fish. These 20 nutrients, alone, and in myriad combinations, compose all the protein structures in the body, from bone and muscle to the tiniest cells in the brain. That’s why amino acids are always referred to as “the building blocks of protein.”
Why are amino acids so critical to addiction recovery?
Aminos are the only nutrients that the brain can use to generate its four super-potent pleasure-producing neurotransmitters:
endorphin, our natural opiate
serotonin, our natural antidepressant
GABA, our natural tranquilizer
and catecholamine, our natural stimulant.
Let’s take a look at the first two: Having enough pain-killing endorphin and anti-depressant serotonin can prevent us from craving pain-killing and anti-depressant drugs. A molecule of endorphin, for example, is 1,000 times stronger than the same amount of heroin but to make it requires that we consume plenty of protein containing lots of all 20 amino acids several times a day.
Unfortunately, we are eating less protein now than ever before in history. Instead, we’re mostly eating drug-like foods: Highly addictive combinations of sugar, refined wheat flour, chocolate, caffeine, and damaged fats (see The Craving Cure by Julia Ross for more on how we’ve come to be so protein malnourished).
In addition, those of us from addictive families tend to be genetically programmed to produce fewer neurotransmitters; children and teens who start using substances like sugar, tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis can create early neurotransmitter imbalances from these drugs’ effects on the brain; those who are under a lot of stress also can become depleted. When addiction takes hold, neurotransmitter levels drop even lower and we feel progressively worse – except while we’re under the influence of the addictive substances that can masquerade as neurotransmitters.
Here’s how that masquerade works: Addictive substances can temporarily override our brains’ diminishing capacity to generate optimal mood, sleep, energy, and a general sense of well-being. Each addictor targets very specific neurotransmitters. For example, heroin fits into the endorphin receptor. Unfortunately, the effects are temporary, so our craving for these substances keeps escalating.
This is why a pro-recovery diet, high in amino-rich protein, is required in recovery. But, addicts, who have usually already been eating poorly, typically eat even worse food in early recovery, whether on their own or in treatment programs. Why? Most addicts crave sugar (itself a potent drug) and caffeine because these substances can, between them, stimulate all four key neurotransmitters just enough to temporarily ease the discomfort of their short- and long-term withdrawal symptoms.
For example, it’s common for women in recovery to switch from alcohol to sugar and wheat products and gain weight or become bulimic.
Even those who do eat the best pro-recovery diets often find that it takes time to build up their brain neurotransmitter levels to the point that all cravings for drugs or drug-like foods are eliminated. This is why a pro-recovery diet usually needs to be combined with a few individual amino acid supplement concentrates for about a year.
The Benefit of Brain-Targeted Amino Acid Supplementation
Moments after swallowing the appropriate amino acids the cravings and negative mood states that lead to relapse diminish noticeably or disappear entirely! These immediate positive effects become consistent by the end of the first week if dosing is tailored to individual needs. After a year or so on the amino supplements along with the pro-recovery diet, the individualized amino acid supplementation is typically no longer needed. The amino-neurotransmitter recovery work has permanently optimized the brain’s natural ability to generate pleasure, positive moods, sleep, and energy.
Collectively, Alliance professionals have seen this transformation in many thousands of cases since the 1980s, when we first began using them in clinical practice.
We learned about these amazing nutritional recovery tools in the 1980s, not long after we discovered that neurotransmitter deficit was the core cause of addiction. The source of our information? The new field of neuroscience. Kenneth Blum, PhD, at that time one of the leading American neuroscientists, was focusing on what he called “the addictive brain.” It was universally understood among all neuroscientists that specific amino acids were the only nutrients that the brain could use to make neurotransmitters. The amino acid is called a "precursor" or the nutrient that is the body's raw material it uses to make something else, in this case a chemical messenger called neurotransmitters. For example, they knew that serotonin could only be made out of the amino acid tryptophan. Blum conducted clinical research on just the few amino acids that increased the number of the four pleasure-producing neurotransmitters. His studies revealed that addicts who were given formulas containing these specific amino acid “precursors” consistently experienced dramatically improved recovery. In fact, Blum and his associates documented astonishing and rapid improvements in both treatment retention and relapse prevention.
(See Research Support for more on Blum’s work).
Those of us in the treatment field who have subsequently learned to customize the use of these same and certain other amino acids to individual addicts’ needs have since seen even more impressive results.
Some of the key supplements used in a nutrition-based treatment program include the following:
L-Glutamine is a perfect fuel for the whole brain, balancing blood sugar levels to maintain energy and clear thinking. Blood sugar deficiency symptoms: irritability, shakiness, weakness, dizziness, especially if too many hours have passed since the previous meal. Symptoms of deficiency may include cravings for whatever gives quick relief to low blood sugar, like sweets, starches, and alcohol.
NOTE: Be cautious about taking L-glutamine if you have manic depression (bipolar disorder). While low doses of L-glutamine may relieve bipolar depression, in approximately 50% of bipolar cases normal doses of L-glutamine can trigger mania which can plummet into suicidal depression.
D-phenylalanine (fee nil al a neen) extends the life of pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. (L-phenylalanine is a form that stimulates the nervous system). D-phenylalanine is a powerful pain reliever without being a stimulant. It is available online. Most health food stores sell a mixed form called DL-phenylalanine. Symptoms of endorphin deficiency may include crying easily (even over commercials on television), chronic pain, emotional fragility, or a particular sensitivity to pain. Symptoms of deficiency may also include cravings for numbing foods like sweets and starches or use of substances like nicotine, marijuana, heroin, or alcohol to numb feelings. Prescriptions of pain relievers like Vicodin are common for an endorphin deficiency.
NOTE: Don’t take D- or DL-phenylalanine if you have melanoma, Grave’s disease, or phenylketonuria (PKU). Be cautious about taking Phenylalanine if you have migraines, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, high blood pressure, or manic depression (bipolar disorder).
L-Tryptophan and 5-HTP
(5-Hydroxy tryptophan) is used to manufacture serotonin, the brain’s natural antidepressant. Serotonin deficiency symptoms include depression, self-deprecation, irritability, panic, anxiety, compulsive thoughts and behaviors, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, sleep disorders, seasonal affective disorder, cravings worse in the afternoon or evening, sensitivity to heat, and minimal sense of humor. Symptoms of deficiency may also include cravings for sweets and starches and the use of nicotine, marijuana, and alcohol for relaxing and comfort when stressed. Prescription of Select Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) drugs like Lexapro, Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac or Select Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitor (SNRI) drugs like Effexor or Cymbalta are common for serotonin deficiency.
GABA is used to augment the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), the anti-stress chemical. GABA deficiency symptoms: anxiety, tension—emotional and physical—and feeling overwhelmed by stress. Symptoms of deficiency may include cravings for: carbohydrates, nicotine, marijuana, or alcohol to relax when stressed. Prescriptions of tranquilizers like Valium, Neurontin, Xanax, and Ativan are common for GABA deficiency.
L-Tyrosine (tie row seen) is used to manufacture catecholamines (cat a coal a meens) like dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These neurotransmitters cause us to wake up in the morning alert and refreshed with a clear mind, able to concentrate and focus on our goals. Symptoms of catecholamine deficiency may include fatigue, lack of focus, lack of motivation, depression, apathy, or a feeling of boredom but no energy to do anything more interesting which all may be diagnosed as “attention deficit disorder” (ADD). Symptoms of deficiency may also include cravings for whatever will ramp up the nervous system; sweets and starches for the quick rise in blood sugar and temporary stimulation, brain stimulants like caffeine or aspartame, and stimulating drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine. People with catecholamine deficiency may also use tobacco, marijuana, opiates, or alcohol as stimulants and choose risky sports and activities such as gambling or unsafe sex to raise catecholamine levels to feel more alive. Prescriptions of Ritalin, Wellbutrin, or Adderall are common for catecholamine deficiency.
NOTE: Don’t take L-tyrosine if you have had melanoma, Grave’s Disease, or phenylketonuria (PKU). Be cautious about taking L-tyrosine if you have migraines, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, high blood pressure, or manic depression (bipolar disorder).
Thanks to Julia Ross, MA for her contributions to this synopsis.
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