By Author


of the The Nutritional Therapy Institute Clinic

(formerly The Recovery Systems Clinic)


 Almost everyone who has ever come into my office has felt like a failure. “I just don’t seem to have the willpower to stay on a diet anymore” or “I can never stick to the maintenance part of the plan.” Mostly, this is because they crave sweets or starchy carbs and can’t do without them for long. They start with “just a little” and end up eating a lot more than they feel they should. Often their spouses or other family members criticize them, saying, “Why don’t you just try harder?” “If you’d just limit yourself to one . . . ,” which only serves to make them feel even worse about themselves. “I guess they’re right,” they say, “I just don’t have enough self-discipline.” Yet oddly, these same people are usually doing well in every other aspect of their lives. They are effective at work, they keep the bills paid and the checkbook balanced, they organize their children’s lives beautifully. They are actually models of willpower.

We point this out. We remind them that they have lost weight—dozens, sometimes hundreds of times. Truly, there is nothing harder than dieting.  Most of those critical spouses and family members could never stand the course of even one diet.

So if it’s not lack of willpower, what is wrong with you? Are you an emotional basket case who can’t get by without comfort food? If you had more strength, could you power through your problems without overeating? Should you feel ashamed of yourself for needing emotional sustenance from foods? No! I hope to help you understand why you are using food as self-medication. It’s not because you are weak willed, it’s because you’re low in 

certain brain chemicals. You don’t have enough of the chemicals that should naturally be making you feel emotionally strong and complete.

These brain chemicals are thousands of times stronger than street drugs such as heroin. And your body has to have them. If not, it sends out a command that is stronger than anyone’s willpower: “Find a druglike food to briefly substitute for your brain’s missing comfort chemicals. We cannot function without them!” Your depression, tension, irritability, anxiety, and cravings are all symptoms of a brain that is deficient in the mood-enhancing and pleasure-promoting chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Each of the five neurotransmitters we’ll be discussing here is made from a very specific amino acid.  Each of these aminos is available as an individual supplement in health and drug everywhere and on-line.



Something has interfered with your neurotransmitters’ production. What is it? It’s obviously not too unusual, or there wouldn’t be so many people using food or antidepressants to feel better.  Actually, there are several common problems that can result in your feel-good brain chemicals becoming depleted, and none of them is your fault!

• You may be eating too little protein and dieting too often.

• Regular use of druglike foods such as refined sugars and flours, and regular use of alcohol or drugs (including some medicines), can inhibit the production of any of your brain’s natural pleasure chemicals.

• Prolonged stress “uses up” your natural sedatives, stimulants, and pain relievers.

• You may have inherited deficiencies.

• All of the above.


When psychological help does not clear up emotional eating, we need to look at the five brain chemicals that regulate our appetites and moods. They are:

1. Endorphins, our naturally comforting pain killers

2. Serotonin, our natural anti-depressant and sleep-promoter

3. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric-acid), our natural tranquilizer

4. Catecholamines, our natural energizers and mental focusers

5. Glucose; adequate levels keep our brains fuel supplies stable (that means few cravings and little moodiness)


The key neurotransmitters are made of amino acids. There are at least twenty-two amino acids contained in high protein foods such as fish, eggs, chicken, and beef, including the nine amino acids that are considered essential for humans. Other foods, such as grains and beans, have fewer aminos, so they need to be carefully combined to provide a complete protein (for example, rice and beans, or corn and nuts).  Even then these foods contain much less protein, and the carb content is much higher.

If you are eating three meals a day, each meal including plenty of protein (most people with eating and weight problems are doing neither), your positive moods and freedom from cravings can be maintained. But many people need to kick-start a brains repair job, using particular, individual amino acids.  This will allow you to quickly start enjoying eating protein and vegetables instead of cookies and ice cream. After a few months, you will be getting all the aminos you need from your food alone and won’t need to take amino acids as supplements any longer.


In a study published in October 1997, University of North Texas researcher Kenneth Blum and colleagues monitored two groups of dieters for two years after they had completed a medically monitored fast. The fasters had used the product Optifast, a powdered nutritional drink containing various vitamins and minerals, which dieters use to replace one, two, or even three meals a day. In Dr. Blum’s study, 247 Optifast graduates were divided into two equal groups. One group took the amino acids listed in this chapter. The other group took no amino acids. As we know from Oprah Winfrey’s highly publicized experience with Optifast and from the 1992 Senate investigation of Optifast and Nutrisystems, a quick regain of weight after a liquid fast is to be expected in more than 90 percent of cases. However, this did not happen to Dr. Blum’s amino acid-taking group.

At the end of two years, the amino acid takers showed:

♦  a twofold decrease in percent overweight for both males and females;

♦  a 70 percent decrease in craving for females and a 63 percent decrease for males;

♦  a 66 percent decrease in binge eating for females and a 41 percent decrease for males;

♦   the experimental group regained only 14.7 percent of the weight they lost during fasting while the control group regained 41.7 percent of their lost weight.


Restoring depleted brain chemistry sounds like a big job—but it isn’t. Three of the four key neurotransmitters are made from just a single amino acid each! Because biochemists isolate these key amino acids and extract them from special yeasts, you can easily add the specific ones that may be deficient. These “free form” amino acids are instantly bioavailable (in other words they are predigested), unlike protein powders from soy or milk, which can be hard to absorb. Hundreds of research studies at Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere have confirmed the effectiveness of using just a few targeted amino acid precursors to increase the key neurotransmitters, thereby eliminating depression, anxiety, and cravings for food, alcohol, and drugs.  (You can find out even more about aminos and behavior in my book The Mood Cure.


This may be the most exciting chapter in The Diet Cure because it will teach you how to use amino acid supplements to correct the brain chemistry deficiencies that are forcing you to the chocolate chip cookies. Soon you’ll be free of food cravings, and the depression, irritability, anxiety, and over-stress that trigger them. The Amino Acid Therapy Chart on page 122-123, will help you to spot which aminos you’ll need, at what dosages, and when to take them.

This is the secret:  There are twenty-two 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 and appetizer regulating 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 and food cravings.

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’ve run too low?  How can you fill ‘em up?  Which amino brain fuels do you need? 


Here is a list of all of the individual amino acids that you might need.   Match them up with your specific neurotransmitter deficiency symptoms on the Chart of Symptoms on page 123.  As you’ll see, the amino acids needed to eliminate each symptom are listed directly across from that symptom.  Once you’ve identified which aminos you’ll need, check the precautionary sheet to be sure there’s no reason for you not to take a particular amino.  Then buy or order them, trial them one by one and wait ten minutes for each one to produce its amazing effects on your mood and appetite. 

The Amino Acids You Might Need:

  • 5HTP or/ Tryptophan to raise Serotonin levels
  • GABA, Taurine, and/or Theanine to raise GABA levels
  • Tyrosine or phenylalanine to raise levels of stimulating neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine
  • DLPA or D-phenylalanine to increase the availability of Endorphin
  • Glutamine to keep blood sugar levels stable and all neurotransmitters firing strongly and in concert
  • Precautions: Not all amino acids and supplements are safe for all 

    people. See chapter seventeen, page 257 and the precautions 

    list that follows this section of the Amino Acids page.



     As the activity of the brain shrinks with dieting, the brain’s mental and emotional stability can falter—even fail. (You can recognize brain chemistry deficiency by its very specific symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, irritability, obsessiveness, and low self-esteem.) My clients who are dieters or have eating disorders always suffer from mood problems, caused primarily by protein malnutrition. The four brain chemicals that dictate your moods are all derived from the amino acids in protein foods. Even nondieters who tend not to eat enough protein can suffer from low-protein brain drain.

    Tryptophan Depletion: The Path to Depression, Low Self-esteem, Obsession, and Eating Disorders

    Serotonin, perhaps the most well known of the brain’s four key mood regulators, is made from the amino acid L-tryptophan. Because few foods contain high amounts of tryptophan, it is one of the first nutrients that you can lose when you start dieting. Studies show that serotonin levels can drop too low within seven hours of tryptophan depletion. Let’s follow this single essential protein (there are nine altogether) as it becomes more and more depleted by dieting, to see how decreased levels of even one brain nutrient might turn you toward depression, compulsive eating, bulimia, or anorexia.

    In his best seller, Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer, M.D. explains that when our serotonin levels drop, so do our feelings of self-esteem, regardless of our actual circumstances or accomplishments. These feelings can easily be the result of not eating the protein foods that keep serotonin levels high. As their serotonin-dependent self- esteem drops, girls tend to diet even more vigorously. “If I get thin enough, I’ll feel good about myself again!” Tragically, they don’t know that they will never be thin enough to satisfy their starving minds. Extreme dieting is actually the worst way to try to raise self- esteem because the brain can only deteriorate further and become more self-critical as it starves. More and more dieters worldwide are experiencing this miserable side effect of weight reduction on the brain.

    When tryptophan deficiency causes serotonin levels to drop, you may become obsessed with thoughts you can’t turn off or behaviors you can’t stop. Once this rigid behavior pattern emerges in the course of dieting, the susceptibility to eating disorders is complete. Just as some low-serotonin obsessive-compulsives wash their hands fifty times a day, some young dieters may begin to practice a constant, involuntary vigilance regarding food and the perfect body. They become obsessed with calorie counting, with how ugly they are, and on how to eat less and less. As they eat less, their serotonin levels fall farther, increasing dieters’ obsession with undereating. As their zinc and vitamin B1 (thiamin) levels drop low as well, their appetite fades. This can be the perfect biochemical setup for anorexia.

    Control, which so many therapists and researchers have observed as the central issue of anorexia, often comes down to this: tryptophan (and serotonin) deficiency result in an outbreak of the obsessive behavior that we call “controlling.”  There may be psychological elements in the picture, too, but a low-serotonin brain is ill equipped to resolve them. Several large international studies of the causes of anorexia have concluded that the cause is a genetic serotonin-related mood disorder, not a psychological one.

    Tryptophan, Serotonin, Compulsive Overeating, and Bulimia

    For reasons we don’t entirely understand, some dieters whose serotonin levels drop lose self-esteem and become obsessed with weight loss, but do not lose their appetites. On the contrary, their appetites expand. In the late afternoon and evening, especially in winter and during PMS (low serotonin times for all of us), these dieters can become ravenous and binge on sweets and starches.

    One of our clients ate regular breakfasts and lunches but dreaded her evenings, when she would binge on ice cream and cookies, whether she had eaten a normal dinner or not. Terrified of weight gain, she would throw up as soon as she ate.

    In several studies, bulimics were deprived of the single amino acid tryptophan. In reaction, their serotonin levels dropped and they binged more violently, ingesting and purging an average of 900 calories more each day.22 In another study, adding extra tryptophan to the diet reduced bulimic binges and mood problems by raising serotonin levels. Most recently, a University of Oxford researcher, Katherine Smith, reported that even years into recovery, bulimics can experience a return of their cravings and mood problem after only a few hours of tryptophan depletion. She concluded, “Our findings support suggestions that chronic depletion of plasma tryptophan may be one of the mechanisms whereby persistent dieting can lead to the development of eating disorders in vulnerable individuals.”

    Note that most compulsive eaters do not vomit. They keep it all down. But dieting can lower their serotonin levels, too, causing the same wild cravings and self-hate that bulimics suffer.

    As we trace the fate of only one depleted nutrient, tryptophan, and the brain chemical made from it, serotonin, you can again see how easily a dieter can develop an eating disorder. If you consider how many other critical brain and body chemicals are depleted through dieting, you have a more profound appreciation of the dangers you are exposed to on low-calorie diets.

    Questions about Amino Acid Therapy? Call lJulia Ross' The Nutritional Therapy Institute Clinic at 415-383-3611 to discuss your options.

    Precautions: Not all amino acids and supplements are safe for all people. See chapter seventeen, page 257 of The Diet Cure and the precautions list that follows this section of the Amino Acids page.


    Amino Acids: Wonderful for Most, Trouble for Some.

    The nutritional suggestions made in Julia Ross' books have helped tens of thousands of people and her own clinic has successfully used "Nutritional Therapy" to help thousands of individuals. Even so some of the supplements she recommends have not been evaluated by the FDA.

    Even if we didn't have to provide you with the above disclaimer, there is important information regarding the use of supplements that you really do need to understand. Everybody's body is different. Certain amino acid supplements should not be taken by some people. Does that mean you? Please take the time to examine the "Amino Acid Precautions" chart carefully before taking any amino acid supplements mentioned on this website.

    If you have: overactive thyroid (Grave’s disease), PKU (phenylketonuria) or Melanoma;
    Do NOT take: L-tyrosine, DL-phenylalanine, or L-phenylalanine

    Please consult a knowledgeable practitioner before taking any amino acids if any of the following statements apply to you:

    • You tend to react to supplements, foods or medications with unusual or uncomfortable symptoms
    • You have serious physical illness, particularly cancer
    • You have severe liver or kidney problems
    • You have an ulcer (amino acids are slightly acidic)
    • You are pregnant or nursing
    • You have schizophrenia or other mental illness
    • You have phenylketonuria (PKU)
    • You are taking any medications for mood problems, particularly MAO inhibitors or more than one SSRI.
    amino acid precaution chart

    Even if your doctor agrees that you can try amino acids (or any other nutrients), if you experience discomfort of any kind after taking them, stop taking them immediately.

    1. These two aminos can sometimes cause jitteriness in those with Hashimoto's Thyroiditis.
    2. In rare cases, glutamine might raise blood sugar in diabetics.
    3. In approximately 50% of bi-polar cases L-glutamine can trigger mania. Note: Low doses can sometimes relieve bi-polar depression without triggering mania. (SAM-E, St. John's Wort, bright therapeutic lamps, and too much fish or flax oil may also trigger mania.)

    Taking Aminos Beyond Need: The Reverse Syndrome
    Amino acids are rarely needed long term (three to twelve months is typical). Taking too many or taking any for too long can cause a return of original negative symptoms. To monitor your need for them, stop taking the pertinent amino(s) once a month, or as recommended by your practitioner. If you experience a return of your original serotonin deficiency symptoms, resume taking the supplements. If you feel better when you stop taking the amino acids, do not resume taking them. You have received maximum benefit.