The Mood Cure

A Moneychanger interview with Julia Ross

Julia Ross, M.A., has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and has been directing counselling programs in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1980. She is the executive director of Recovery Systems, a clinic that treats mood, eating, and addiction disorders with nutrient therapy and biochemical rebalancing. The author of The Diet Cure, she is a frequent lecturer at conferences around the country, and her work has been featured on numerous national radio and television programs and publications such as Natural Health, Psychology Today, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Marin County, north of San Francisco.

Her most recent book, The Mood Cure, “provides the good news that we can feel better emotionally, without the use of caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, or antidepressants—and the even better news that we can begin to see results in just one day.” I heartily recommend that you buy and read it. We very much appreciate her giving us time for this interview on her work.

Readers can order Julia Ross’s The Diet Cure and The Mood Cure directly from her websites, and Two reliable sources for high quality supplements are Vitamin Research Products, 3579 Hwy 50 East, Carson City, Nevada 89701; (800) 877-2447, and Tahoma Clinic Dispensary, 801 SW 16th Street, Suite 121, Renton, Washington 98055, (425) 264-0051 or fax (425) 264-0058.

Moneychanger: One statistic in your book especially caught my eye. You wrote that you were used to a 20% cure rate and 80% recidivism (relapse) rate with drug addicts and alcoholics, and that by adding amino acid supplementation to the diet you saw that relapse and cure rate flip-flop? Is that correct?

Ross: That’s correct.

Moneychanger: You must have thought that you’d hit the Promised Land.

Ross: I did and I still do. I have been in the Promised Land for over 15 years, but unfortunately, most other addiction treatment professionals haven’t been.

Moneychanger: I don’t understand why more people don’t know about this. Treating drug addicts and alcoholics is very frustrating—an intractable problem.

Ross: I find it mystifying myself because research studies on amino acid therapy showing remarkable results have been available since 1986. Actually, in the late ‘80s many treatment professionals were excited about using amino acid supplements. Many treatment programs were using one of the amino acids, tryptophan, which the brain uses to produce its most powerful natural antidepressant, the neurotransmitter serotonin. It was enormously helpful with both mood and sleep problems.

The field was poised to go further in the direction of amino acid therapy when Prozac arrived on the scene. At first, Prozac was not making any money because natural competitors like tryptophan were available and because it frequently had negative side effects. Many psychiatrists were successfully using the amino acid, so weren’t interested in the drug. But then a small Japanese company with a shady reputation altered its production of tryptophan and knowingly sent a bad batch to this country. (They later testified in court that they had known the batch was tainted.) It killed forty people and made a lot of other people very sick, so the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pulled tryptophan off the market. Even though they soon found out what the problem was, they still asked for a complete (voluntary) ban on it. That was in 1989 and they’ve never formally withdrawn the ban.

Moneychanger: But tryptophan was not the problem. An impure manufacturing process was at fault.

Ross: Yes, and the FDA knew that, but they have often said in print that they are committed to supporting the pharmaceutical industry. They never made that ban legal or binding, but they confiscated huge amounts of untainted tryptophan and almost bankrupted several companies. So until very recently most people were too afraid to challenge the ban. Meanwhile, Prozac has risen to number ten on the list of prescription drugs sold in the US, with other, similar drugs close behind it. The medical directors of addiction treatment programs turned from the aminos to the new antidepressant drugs. Chemical dependency treatment rests on the assumption that addiction is a brain chemistry problem, but treatment has chosen to use drugs that manipulate the deficient brain sites rather than the amino acid nutrients that actually correct those brain deficiency problems.

Moneychanger: When you talk about giving somebody amino acids you’re not talking about “drugs.” It amounts to nothing more or less than what they eat all the time. It’s just higher concentrations in greater purity than they would normally eat. For instance, tryptophan occurs richly in turkey, so relaxed, sleepy sensations can result from eating a good bit of turkey.

Ross: A standard treatment dose is about 1000 mg, twice as much tryptophan as you would get in a single serving of turkey. That’s not a huge amount of tryptophan, but by taking it in capsules, away from food, you are taking it in such a way that the brain gets full benefits. The brain converts it to serotonin within ten minutes, and you can actually feel the positive effects that quickly.

Moneychanger: Does the patient have to supplement permanently?

Ross: No, only long enough to correct the deficiencies. In other words, to build up their brain’s level of serotonin. Once that is accomplished, aminos like tryptophan don’t have a positive effect anymore. Taking them might even cause a slight headache. Typically people take aminos for three to twelve months, depending on how severe their problem is. A recovering alcohol or drug addict, for example, might need to take them for a year, while someone with mild depression or anxiety might only need them for three months.

Moneychanger: Amino acids are the essential building blocks of protein. There are 22 of them. Which particular ones do you supplement?

Ross: We typically only need to use five or six. Tryptophan is available again now, by prescription, online, and in a few stores; but it’s still awkward to find, so we most often recommend 5HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which is almost identical to tryptophan in effect. The other key aminos are:

  • tyrosine, which raises our natural stimulant levels;
  • glutamine, which balances blood sugar levels in the brain to make our moods steady and even;
  • dl-phenylalanine, which helps raise our levels of painkilling, comfort-promoting endorphins; and
  • GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), our natural Valium.

All are readily available in health food stores and pharmacies. All of these free-form amino acids get into the system more easily than protein from foods, because they are pre-digested.

Moneychanger: In other words, the pure isolated amino acids.

Ross: Exactly.

Moneychanger: What do drugs like Prozac do? It’s not a simple food.

Ross: No, it is called a serotonin uptake inhibitor. It traps serotonin in certain parts of special brain cells where it’s most active and keeps it from going into its more passive storage mode or being converted into its natural breakdown products.

Moneychanger: I don’t have any figures, but my personal experience suggests that psychiatrists and physicians are writing prescriptions for Prozac and all its psychotropic kin like my kids eating popcorn.

Ross: Speaking of kids, the number of children put on antidepressants increased 3-5 fold between 1987 and 1994, and at least half a million children are currently part of this fast-growing pediatric market. By 1999, antidepressants like Prozac constituted the fifth largest selling prescription drug category on the market, with 84 million prescriptions filled.

Moneychanger: I have a philosophical and theological objection to the notion of drugging people—for the rest of their lives—for every problem. For one thing, those drugs have side effects.

Ross: They often do cause problems, but they can also help some people to a certain extent, sometimes very significantly. Unfortunately, the help is almost never adequate. You may get an improvement, but not a solution. About a third of those who take SSRIs find that they lose their effectiveness altogether within a year. Some others experience very, very serious side effects.

Moneychanger: Like walking into a room and shooting your family.

Ross: Exactly. Many suits have been filed against Paxil and other SSRIs, and most have been settled out of court for tremendous sums. The ones that have actually gone to trial have gone against the drug companies, because before taking the drugs, the people affected had been neither violent nor suicidal. Ireland has recently banned the sale of Paxil altogether, because of its dangers.

The drugs simply make the existing serotonin molecules work harder so that it feels like there is more serotonin than there really is, but the actual amount of serotonin is not increased. That limits the benefits of the drugs, of course.

The most potentially dangerous aspect of these drugs is that they trap what little serotonin exists in people’s brains in one area of their brain cells. In the process of trapping serotonin, the drugs also prevent it from moving on and being converted into other things that the brain needs. One of them is a chemical called 5HIAA. People who have the most depression, the most serious addictions, the criminal behaviour, and the suicidal and the homicidal impulses are already low in 5HIAA. We’ve known that for years. These drugs can further deplete the essential reservoir of 5HIAA.

This is where supplementation with 5HTP or tryptophan helps. It can raise serotonin levels naturally, allowing it to convert into by-products like 5HIAA as needed. Another of those by-products is melatonin, which regulates our sleep cycles. Some antidepressant drugs interfere with sleep, so physicians end up adding highly addictive medications along with them to get people to sleep!

By the way, in England when someone doesn’t improve on drugs like Prozac, a standard procedure is to add tryptophan rather than additional drugs.

Moneychanger: Is it responsible treatment to put somebody on a drug intending to leave him on it for the rest of his life?

Ross: No, especially because the long-term effects of these drugs have not been tested. The manufacturers do not even recommend that they be used for more than three months.

Moneychanger: But as a human being, do you think it’s responsible to solve people’s problems that way?

Ross: Not when you don’t know the drug’s long term effects. But most clinicians don’t know that there are safer ways to improve mood. And some people need help very badly. Some don't respond well to the natural approach, yet are suicidal. Under these circumstances we encourage people to try drugs. However, we very seldom have to do this, and usually it’s only for short term use while we investigate what’s interfering with the brain’s ability to make enough of its own natural antidepressant out of the amino acid supplements. The cause almost always turns out to be a thyroid problem.

Moneychanger: You emphasised that heavily in The Diet Cure. Do you think that thyroid dysfunction is a widespread problem?

Ross: I know that it is a widespread problem. I also know that the symptoms are often ignored, adequate testing often isn’t done, and test results are often misinterpreted. As a result, many millions of people—men and women, but primarily women—suffer from an undiagnosed thyroid insufficiency that affects every cell in their bodies and certainly affects both their mood and energy.

Moneychanger: Is that the thyroid insufficiency some people call “subclinical”? That is, tests for thyroid insufficiency generally show results in what the lab considers to be in the normal range, but the patient actually does have low thyroid function?

Ross: Yes. We have seen many people whose tests showed no deficiency though they had significant symptoms of low thyroid function, like low energy, and cold hands and feet. When they tried thyroid hormone supplementation, those symptoms improved in specific, measurable ways.

Moneychanger: We talked about treating alcoholics and drug addicts with amino acids, but you now devote a large part of your practice to eating disorders.

Ross: Yes, partly because most of our alcoholics and drug addicts gain thirty pounds in their first thirty days of recovery! Once off their drug of choice, they immediately develop a food addiction instead, and we had to learn how to help them with their new problem.

Moneychanger: The Diet Cure intimates that addicts sink deeper and deeper into addiction because they actually suffer a kind of hunger. Alcoholics, for instance, get a big dose of carbohydrates when they drink.

Ross: That’s part of it, since carbs can actually affect the brain like drugs do. Of course, the carbs never give quite the same effect, but they provide a substitute that can help keep addicts from relapsing into drugs or alcohol temporarily. At the same time, the junk foods keep them so unstable that they inevitably relapse.

Moneychanger: Is that how you stepped from treating alcoholics and drug addicts to people with eating disorders?

Ross: Yes, I discovered some research showing that alcoholics in particular have a tremendous sensitivity to carbohydrates. Just like alcohol, carbs could raise their blood sugar levels abnormally high and then drop them abnormally low. The highs made them feel really good. The lows left them desperate for something, so eventually they would go back to the alcohol, which raises blood sugar even faster than sweet or starchy carbs do.

It became obvious that we needed to balance our alcoholic clients’ blood sugar levels, because as long as they were eating refined carbohydrates, they couldn’t stabilise. Over time we saw that even though they were willing to stop eating the refined carbs, they couldn’t do so without a return of their alcohol cravings. That’s when we were fortunate enough to find the amino acid research that pointed out a way to correct the brain chemistry defects underlying the cravings for both alcohol and carbs. If blood sugar falls very low, for example, the brain can use the amino acid glutamine to instantly stop the urgent hunger for a drink or a Twinkie .

Moneychanger: Are you saying that a consistent overeater is like an alcoholic?

Ross: Yes, and quite often they come from the same families. When a parent is alcoholic, some of his or her children will probably become addicted to alcohol while others will typically become addicted to carbohydrates, which, for them, are as effective for comfort and stress relief.

Moneychanger: You use an eight step test to analyse new patients?

Ross: There are eight possible imbalances that can contribute to cravings—and to the mood swings that draw people to addictive substances. Once the symptoms of our clients’ particular imbalances are identified, we can quickly apply effective, targeted natural solution. (The Diet Cure begins with an 8-part questionnaire that helps readers identify which of the 8 imbalances they have.)

Moneychanger: You’ve found this amino acid regimen to be successful with anorexics and bulimics as well chronic overeaters?

Ross: Yes. They’re all suffering from similar biochemical problems. We typically have no trouble at all helping bulimics and overeaters eliminate their food cravings and mood problems. The starvers (anorexics) suffer from the most profound nutrient depletion, of course. The brain reacts very sensitively to starvation. Its levels of serotonin, our most important natural antidepressant, start to drop within the first day of dieting. An anorexic has been losing serotonin for a long time. The brain chemistry has been so stripped of serotonin that the patient has lost the ability to think and act on her own behalf. She can’t even see the problem anymore so she resists any effort to save herself. If they are too far gone, anorexics have to be treated as in-patients. Once they have finished that treatment they will have begun eating and have built up some minimal serotonin function. Then we can really do wonderful work with them. Anorexics desperately need all nutrients, but ironically, most treatment programs do not use any supplements at all, and don’t even give them high quality food.

Moneychanger: You make some astounding statements about dieting and dietary fat, statements that exactly contradict everything that food advertisements and the medical industry pass for gospel. You even maintain that dieting is dangerous for your health.

Ross: Dieting is terribly dangerous for your mental health as well as your physical health. It is one of the primary causes of our epidemics of obesity, depression, and eating disorders. Processed, nutrient-poor white flour, and white sugar products are the main culprits. We are eating them in an effort to avoid fat, and so that we can lose weight and lower cholesterol. But if we avoid fat-containing foods, the only foods left are low fat carbohydrates. In an effort to be healthier, many Americans are starving themselves of real nutrients and taking on board nutrient-empty carbohydrates, which the body just converts into stored fat! Our heart disease rate has only increased as we’ve low-fat dieted ourselves into a high-carb diabetes epidemic.

Moneychanger: And then they are trapped in the dieting cycle.

Ross: Right. As soon as they’ve lost the usual weight from reducing calories, then they begin overeating carbs more than ever. Diet, binge, diet again. They’re gaining more than ever before with each diet, and the carb addiction really takes hold. They sink into deeper and deeper malnutrition as they eat fewer and fewer nutritious things and more and more empty carbs or emptier diet foods.

When someone goes on a diet, the thyroid receives the message that a famine is in progress so it orders the body to burn fewer calories. That’s the other reason that people always gain back more weight than they lose: Dieting slows the calorie burning mechanism.

Moneychanger: Over time the high carbohydrate-high sugar diet is very hard on the pancreas as well.

Ross: 100% of the cause of the current diabetes epidemic is too much refined carbohydrate consumption. A little known aspect of this phenomenon is that by dieting you lower serotonin levels. That starts on the first day of a diet and ends up making dieters crave carbohydrates even more, because, by triggering an insulin release, carbs indirectly give the body a brief access to tryptophan, which raises serotonin briefly. When we raise serotonin naturally by giving 5HTP, these kinds of carb cravings can be stopped and the rush toward diabetes halted.

Moneychanger: Do I remember reading that you personally eat over 3000 calories a day?

Ross: Yes, quite often.

Moneychanger: That’s astounding. Most dieters eat only two-thirds of that—or less.

Ross: When your body takes in plenty of really wholesome food, your metabolism kicks up and you burn calories more efficiently, plus you have the energy to exercise regularly. All this keeps weight normal.

Moneychanger: In The Diet Cure you make several general diet recommendations. One that struck me was to eat more protein and a lot more fat.

Ross: Eating protein and saturated fat or olive oil at all three meals along with at least four cups of coloured vegetables a day and definitely never skipping breakfast, eliminates cravings for sweets and starches, stabilises blood sugar and improves energy and mood dramatically. I give all the details on why saturated fats like organic butter are so healthy and such good-mood foods in The Mood Cure’s chapters on good-mood foods vs. bad-mood foods.

Moneychanger: Three thousand calories a day is a huge intake. I kept flipping to the back of the book to look at your picture, and then I’d go back and read that again. I kept asking myself, “This trim little woman eats all that food everyday?”

Ross: I am active and fit because I eat this energising food three times a day. Our clients typically eat more of this “real” food than they’re used to, yet stop gaining weight—and usually lose weight—as a result. In addition they feel so much better in general.

Moneychanger: Your new book was just published?

Ross: Yes, The Mood Cure came out in late October, just in time to help with the winter blues!

Moneychanger: Does that just make a wider application of your work in The Diet Cure?

Ross: The Diet Cure addresses mood problems as they adversely affect eating habits. But many people (especially men) have significant mood problems and no weight concerns, and will never pick up a book with the word “diet” on the cover.

Children and adolescents, as well as adults, are all experiencing a tremendous escalation of depression and anxiety now. Rates have tripled in the past 10 years, yet they have no information about the astoundingly effective, yet safe and natural, nutritional solutions available. They only know about drugs like Prozac. The Mood Cure includes a chapter devoted to those already on antidepressant drugs who may want to switch to the natural methods. The book also includes a substantial chapter on effective, natural approaches to alcohol and drug addictions, which The Diet Cure lacked.

Moneychanger: Would people with sharp mood swings or bad tempers benefit from reading the book?

Ross: Oh, yes. The vast majority of Americans identify with some kind of mood problem. The fastest growing problem is stress. To improve mood, general sense of well being, quality of life, and general health, the book’s section on stress is terribly important. It allows readers to identify stress’s toll and learn how to reverse it.

If mood problems have driven readers to alcohol and drugs, they desperately need the book. If their mood has deteriorated in menopause or in PMS, they can profit from it as well. Severe mood swings, though, as in manic-depression or bi-polar conditions, lie beyond what I discuss in The Mood Cure.

The book starts off with a four-part questionnaire that helps readers identify which of their brains’ four mood regulating areas are deficient. Because of our increased stress and deficient diets irritability and mood swings are common problems now, and they’re usually so easy to eliminate. Depression and anxiety, panic and obsessions are also surprisingly easy to eliminate with amino acids and the other nutritional strategies outlined in the book.

Moneychanger: My son and I are predisposed to—shall we say charitably—flashes of temper. When my wife Susan and daughter Liberty came back from hearing you speak in Washington, they started harping on us about amino acids. I must admit, taking them has made a tremendous difference in our ability to keep our temper and our equability. It’s not that we were all gnawing on each other’s legs all the time, but we were pretty irritable. Every day something goes wrong and it is so nice to be able to deal with it like sane, Christian people, instead of like mad dogs. We’re not ready for sainthood just yet, but the aminos really have made a difference.

Thank you very much for your work and your time.

Ross: You’re quite welcome.

WARNING & DISCLAIMER: By publishing this material, neither The Moneychanger nor the author/interviewee recommends or endorses any specific treatment or therapy for any physical condition or disease. Neither The Moneychanger nor the author/interviewee guarantees or warrants any results from any treatment discussed, nor assumes any express or implied liability for any use to which the reader puts this information. By this interview, the interviewee does not prescribe any treatment whatsoever for anyone who is not his patient. All the information here is offered for information purposes only, subject to the reader’s own research, prudence, and judgment.