Researchers have identified an amino acid that may be the key to warding off the damaging changes linked to two common conditions – chronic stress and depression.
According to these studies, the link between mood disturbances and this amino acid is so strong that measuring its levels in the blood may soon be used as a test to see if a patient has depression.
Because your liver can make this amino acid, it’s not considered an essential amino acid that has to be in your diet. But researchers believe the liver often can’t keep up with what the body needs.
So the scientists are starting to come around to the understanding that many of us should be supplementing with this amino acid – acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC). In my personal view the supplement can be life-changing if you suffer a deficiency.
Fighting off Stress
For a long time ALC has been known to be important for the function of mitochondria – the little energy-producing structures that function as the body’s batteries or little energy factories. ALC chauffeurs fatty acids across the membranes of mitochondria and facilitates their processing for energy.
I’ve been taking it daily myself for years for precisely this reason – the mitochondrial benefits. It helps energize every cell in your body. The benefits I’m going to talk about today – relief from stress and depression – are new discoveries.
A recent study now shows that ALC can help parts of the brain fend off harmful changes brought on by persistent stress.
Lab tests show that stress changes the structure of a section of the brain called the amygdala, which is a center for anxiety, fear and other similar emotions. Stress alters the networks of neurons in the amygdala that are thought to make you more prone to suffer anxiety and depression. As part of these alterations, the researchers discovered that neurons in the part of the amygdala called the medial amygdala retract and shorten.1
The new studies show when these neurons pull in on themselves and lose their connections to other neurons, their plasticity – their ability to adjust to new experiences – decreases. The result: a feeling of being trapped in a cycle of mood problems and anxious emotions.
But these tests also showed that treatment with ALC supplements can reduce the effects of stress and preserve more of the connections that keep brain tissue functioning more effectively.
A Useful, Risk-Free Depression Fighter
Further investigations also throw more light on how ALC may help alleviate depression by supporting the medial amygdala function.
For one thing, ALC can help the mitochondria in this part of the brain produce more energy as well as stimulate epigenetic effects on DNA – i.e. exert influence on how DNA functions. The supplement helps turn on the function of genes crucial to the health of neurons.
And when these researchers — a consortium of scientists at Stanford, Rockefeller University and the Karolinska Institutet — analyzed the levels of ALC in blood samples from people in normal health and compared them to the blood from folks suffering depression, they found that the depressed people were significantly lower in ALC.2
Plus, they found that the very lowest ALC levels occurred in the blood of people who were suffering the most severe depression. The low levels were especially significant in those whose depression had resisted treatment and whose mood disorders had started at the earliest ages.
People who had been abused as children and brought up in an environment of poverty, violence and neglect had very low levels of ALC.
“In patients with depression, something is causing a problem in the mechanisms related to the biology of LAC (acetyl-l-carnitine),” says researcher Carla Nasca. “And, surprisingly, the deficiency in LAC is even stronger in patients that don’t respond to standard antidepressants.”
I Think a Supplement is a Good Idea
The researchers investigating ALC emphasize that they aren’t ready yet to recommend ALC supplements to people who are depressed or suffering from stress. However, if you do want to take ALC, it seems to me this supplement is so safe it’s worth a try.
ALC is present in red meat, but a lot of people have cut back on the amount of meat they eat, possibly depriving themselves of this valuable nutrient. I don’t necessarily urge eating more meat, but rather making up the difference with an ALC supplement.
The only warnings I could find were the possible interaction it might have with blood thinners.3 And if you’re pregnant or nursing, you probably shouldn’t take ALC simply because the effects haven’t been studied. As you can imagine, there are ethical problems in using pregnant women to experiment with medical treatments. I’m pretty confident the supplement is harmless to them, but I can’t guarantee it.