How am I ever going to get any of this done? Genene Coté wondered, looking at her to-do list. “I had no idea where I would get the energy to do even one of the 10 items,” she recalls. “My legs felt like they weighed 1,000 pounds and my eyes burned from yet another sleepless night. Not only was I wiped out, but it felt like a cloud was looming over me, making it hard to do anything.
“From the outside, it looked as if I had my life under control. I was in generally good health and my career had taken off. I had a husband who supported me and I was surrounded by fantastic friends. But all I could do was sit in my recliner. Even carrying on a conversation got to be too much. I was worried I had a serious disease, and I was gaining weight.
“One day, when the phone rang, I answered it, weakly saying, ‘Hello?’ It was my friend Karen, who is a nurse. Her first words were: ‘What’s wrong? You sound terrible!’ I opened my mouth to speak and burst into tears. I told her, ‘I’m worried! I have zero energy every day and I cry at the drop of a hat. I’m anxious and getting fat.’ There was silence on the line.
“Then she asked me, ‘How are you sleeping?’ I told her I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. I explained I was restless, tossing and turning, and hot flashes woke me up multiple times a night. ‘Sounds like your problem is lack of sleep combined with perimenopause,’ Karen said. She suggested I look into alternative treatments for fatigue. That sparked my interest, and I agreed to call my doctor.
“I told my doctor I was exhausted, couldn’t sleep and that I felt like I was being weighed down by sadness. She listened carefully, and agreed sleep might be part of the problem. She suggested I try an antidepressant. Many years earlier, I had been treated for a bout of depression with other antidepressants. This felt different, though, mostly due to the fatigue and insomnia. It seemed there had to be an answer that didn’t involve pharmaceuticals. I decided to search for alternatives.
“I soon found an article about 5-HTP (Buy on Amazon, $14.95), a supplement many women use in menopause to help them sleep. I learned that 5-HTP is a precursor to melatonin, which helps with sleep. Plus, research suggests 5-HTP increases serotonin levels, which may improve symptoms of depression.
“I talked to my doctor, who suggested I start with a daily dose of 50 mg. and work my way up. Eventually I found 200 mg. seemed to be the sweet spot between no relief and a morning hangover. At about two weeks, something wonderful happened: I slept six hours! A few weeks later, my fatigue and low moods went away. I also used herbs like black cohosh to stop the hot flashes.
“The most exciting thing besides sleeping was that I started to lose a little weight. I began to feel less anxious and more optimistic. The fatigue began to recede, and I quit crying all the time. I was able to exercise, and the heavy cloud lifted! I still take 5-HTP in times of stress, but now I have my life back, and that time is nothing more than a hazy memory!”
Virtually all women are vulnerable to serotonin deficits, says Daniel Amen, MD, author of Your Brain Is Always Listening (Buy on Amazon, $18.79). In fact, research indicates women produce 52 percent less of the feel-good brain chemical than men. That’s a problem since serotonin plays a key role in regulating sleep and mood. Says Aimee Duffy, MD, founder of Carolina Integrative Medicine in Clemson, South Carolina, “When levels are depleted, sleep disturbances, fatigue and anxiety can result.”
Women over 50 are most at risk. Why? Estrogen enhances serotonin production, so hormonal flux at this time can cause levels to dip by 77 percent.
What’s more, the medication many doctors prescribe to lift serotonin can backfire, worsening symptoms like fatigue and weight gain. The good news: There are natural ways to replenish serotonin to improve energy, mood and more.
Try nature’s Prozac. Taking 5-HTP boosts serotonin and increases time spent in deep sleep by up to 53 percent. Dr. Amen suggests taking 50 mg. at bedtime. “If you don’t get the results you need, increase the dose by 50 mg. [up to 200 mg. each evening] until you hit the amount that works for you.” Bonus: A study in Alternative Medicine Review suggests 5-HTP can cut sleep-robbing chronic pain by 55 percent, and a separate Italian study reveals 5-HTP cuts migraine frequency and severity in half.
Plant flowers. Easy exercise boosts serotonin, says Dr. Amen. It also lowers cortisol, a stress hormone that depletes serotonin. Aim for 30 minutes of walking, biking, or swimming four times a week. Gardening is a good option too, says Dr. Duffy, and time in the sun also raises serotonin levels.
Reach for healthy carbs, like quinoa, sweet potatoes, and bananas, says Dr. Amen. “Healthy carbs elicit a short-term insulin response that drives tryptophan, an amino acid the body uses to make serotonin, into the brain.”
This article originally appeared on our sister site, First For Women.