Serotonin is a crucial hormone that helps stabilize a person’s mood, happiness, and feelings of well-being. 5-Hydroxytryptophan, better known as 5-HTP, is a supplement used to increase serotonin levels.
As 5-HTP isn’t contained in foods humans consume, those wishing to increase their intake must do so via supplements. 5-HTP has become a popular product recently, but does it warrant all the hype? Let’s find out in this article.
What Is 5-HTP?
The body produces serotonin through various chemical steps. It all begins with L-tryptophan, an amino acid. 5-HTP is one of the chemicals involved in transforming L-tryptophan into serotonin.
Up until 1995, it was only possible to purchase 5-HTP via prescription. However, the FDA then approved it as an over-the-counter supplement.
Companies manufacture 5-HTP from the seeds of the Griffonia simplicifolia plant, which is native to Africa.
Although we don’t find 5-HTP in food, there is a myriad of 5-HTP supplements on the market. Companies manufacture it from the seeds of the Griffonia simplicifolia plant, which is native to Africa. Proponents of these supplements claim they increase serotonin production. This is a process that has many possible benefits.
What Does 5-HTP Do for the Body?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. Some people believe that 5-HTP is nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Others associate it with a huge number of benefits. We go into further detail on six of them below.
Using 5-HTP for Sleep
One issue with this supplement is the relative lack of research on humans. That is certainly the case regarding 5-HTP for insomnia. Most of the available research involves animals.
In theory, 5-HTP could help improve the sleep cycle. Serotonin is converted into melatonin, the hormone associated with sleep-wake cycle regulation. If 5-HTP increases serotonin levels, it stands to reason that it could do the same for melatonin.
One animal study, published in Nutrition Research and Practice in June 2018, looked at whether a combination of 5-HTP and GABA could help promote sleep in mice, rats, and fruit flies. The researchers induced sleeplessness by dosing animals with caffeine. They found that GABA and 5-HTP together helped induce sleep, and the combination also appeared to increase sleep quality and quantity.
A study involving humans, published in the American Journal of Therapeutics in 2010, offered promising results. It involved 18 patients with sleep disorders. The researchers gave the group a combination of 5-HTP and GABA or a placebo. The group that used the supplements experienced increased sleep duration and sleep quality. They also got to sleep quicker than the placebo group. It seems possible that adding GABA to 5-HTP leads to a synergistic effect.
Using 5-HTP for Depression
There is also some research relating to 5-HTP for depression. Physicians often recommend selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for patients with depression. SSRIs prevent the body from breaking down serotonin. The result is that users have a higher level of the hormone.
The belief is that 5-HTP could act similarly by increasing serotonin levels in the body. However, many studies on 5-HTP for depression failed to use placebos for comparison purposes.
A review of studies was published in the Cochrane Database System Review in 2002. The researchers looked at 108 trials that used 5-HTP to help with depression. They found that only two of these trials were of a high enough quality to warrant further inspection. With a combined total of 64 patients, the two trials indicated that 5-HTP was better than a placebo at alleviating depression.
Further research is required to prove the assertion that 5-HTP is as effective as certain antidepressants for improving symptoms.
Using 5-HTP for Weight Loss
The suggestion that 5-HTP benefits weight loss similarly requires more evidence. There are a handful of studies that have yielded interesting results. The theory is that 5-HTP may make a person feel full, thus decreasing appetite and calorie intake.
The vast majority of weight-loss diets ultimately fail. The process involves increasing the production of hormones that make us feel hungry. The constant hunger pangs ensure that individuals find it challenging to stick to long-term diets. There is a possibility that 5-HTP could combat these hormones while still suppressing appetite.
A study published in 1998 looked at the effects of 5-HTP on 25 overweight, diabetic outpatients who were not dependent on insulin. Twenty of the volunteers completed the full study. Across two weeks, one group received 5-HTP while the other consumed a placebo. The researchers found that 5-HTP users consumed around 435 fewer calories a day than their placebo-using counterparts.
Using 5-HTP for Anxiety
A growing number of people use 5-HTP for anxiety and panic reduction purposes. The main issue is, once again, the depth of research. In this instance, the few available studies are likely outdated.
A study published in Psychiatry Research in 2002 found that 5-HTP consumption helped reduce panic and anxiety. However, it was only effective in volunteers with panic disorder. The supplement made no difference amongst individuals without the disorder.
Using 5-HTP for Migraines
Symptoms such as blurred vision or nausea often accompany severe migraines. Once again, there is a possible link between this condition and low serotonin levels. Finding research into 5-HTP and headache reduction is a different matter entirely. Yet again, research is limited and possibly outdated.
There is a study from 1986 that compared the ability of 5-HTP to help alleviate migraine symptoms with methysergide, a common migraine medication. The study involved 124 people with migraines. One group used 5-HTP; the other tried methysergide.
Overall, the medication only barely came out on top after six months of daily use. Ultimately, 75% of methysergide users reported a significant improvement in symptoms, compared to 71% of 5-HTP users.
Using 5-HTP for Alcohol Withdrawal
Much is written on the subject of mixing 5-HTP with alcohol. There is less information on 5-HTP for withdrawal. Like 5-HTP, alcohol affects serotonin levels, and it does so by creating a temporary serotonin spike.
However, there is a suggestion that 5-HTP could help with alcohol use disorder. It is mainly based on a small level of research. A study published in 2011 involved 20 patients with alcohol addictions who had just begun detoxification therapy. One group received a placebo; the other had a food supplement that included 5-HTP, L-glutamine, and D-phenylalanine. After 40 days, the researchers found that the supplement helped alleviate the withdrawal symptoms.
5-HTP Side Effects
There are a few side effects of 5-HTP to consider. In the 1986 study on 5-HTP versus methysergide, some volunteers who used 5-HTP experienced vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea. It seems as if the higher the dose, the worse the side effects.
Furthermore, consuming an excessive amount of 5-HTP could lead to a sudden increase in serotonin levels. The result may include side effects such as:
- Heart problems
Historical cases of Contaminated Batches of 5-HTP Supplements
In 1989, the FDA banned the dietary supplement L-tryptophan – the predecessor to 5-HTP. This followed an outbreak of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) linked to contaminated synthetic L-tryptophan from a single manufacturer. EMS is a crippling illness with symptoms including extreme muscle tenderness and blood abnormalities.
5-HTP’s safety profile has been closely monitored by the government, industry, academia, and consumers.
L-tryptophan’s removal from shelves paved the way for 5-HTP (a by-product of L-tryptophan) to enter the dietary supplement market. Given 5-HTP’s chemical and biochemical relationship to L-tryptophan, its safety profile has been closely monitored by the government, industry, academia, and consumers.
According to a 1998 Washington Post article (see Article Sources below), there have been at least two separate cases of contaminated batches of 5-HTP supplements since its introduction to the market.
The first dates back to 1991 and relates to a Canadian woman who used 5-HTP as an ingredient in a formula she gave to her infants. The infants were born with a genetic disorder that prevented them from processing the essential amino acid tryptophan. The woman became ill with eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), and the infants developed blood abnormalities after consuming 5-HTP supplements from a contaminated batch.
According to Esther Sternberg of the National Institute of Mental Health, the infant’s blood tests returned to normal levels after they were switched to a different brand of the 5-HTP supplement, which did not contain the contaminant known as “Peak X.”
The second case came to light in 1998 after independent testing of off-the-shelf 5-HTP supplements from six different brands. The testing was conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic, namely Gerald J. Gleich, an immunologist, and Stephen Naylor, a biochemist.
The tests revealed the presence of low levels (between 3-14%) of the Peak X contaminant present in the contaminated 5-HTP supplements the Canadian woman became ill from. The FDA performed further testing on the 5-HTP samples and confirmed the “presence of impurities” in the supplements.
Speaking to the media in 1998, Gleich highlighted the symptoms people should watch out for if they become ill after taking 5-HTP supplements. These include muscle soreness, fatigue, numbness, and tingling. If a person experiences any of those symptoms after consuming 5-HTP supplements, we recommend that they cease taking them immediately and consult a doctor.
The relative lack of information on the supplement means there are no detailed guidelines on 5-HTP dosage. Consequently, we must rely on the doses used during the available medical research.
For depression, subjects consumed 150-800mg of 5-HTP daily for 2-6 weeks.
Meanwhile, a study from 1998 on diabetic patients found that 250-300mg a day taken about 30 minutes before a meal helped volunteers reduce their body weight.
The American Journal of Therapeutics study in 2010 found that using 100-300mg of 5-HTP up to 45 minutes before bed functioned as an effective sleep aid in conjunction with GABA.
However, an appropriate dose depends on medical history, gender, and age, among other factors. Speak to a doctor before considering the use of 5-HTP for any reason.
Companies that sell 5-HTP tend to do so in 25mg, 50mg, 100mg, and 200mg capsules, although you can also find it in powder form. It is advisable to begin with the lowest available dose first before increasing weekly.
According to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, 5-HTP is possibly safe when consumed orally at daily doses of up to 400mg for a year. However, the human brain is homeostatic, which means it functions to maintain balance. Therefore, if someone uses 5-HTP for a lengthy period, their brain will adjust.
If a regular user suddenly stops or significantly reduces their 5-HTP intake, they may experience withdrawal symptoms.
While it is seldom reported, if a regular user suddenly stops or significantly reduces their 5-HTP intake, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. This could manifest as dizziness, a low mood, or fatigue for a few days after stopping their 5-HTP consumption.
Avoid 5-HTP if currently using any medications that increase serotonin levels. Examples include MAO inhibitors, SSRIs, and a Parkinson’s disease medication called carbidopa. Therefore, it is advisable to avoid using antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, or Paxil with 5-HTP.
As 5-HTP could help fight insomnia, using it with medications such as Ambien could result in excessive sleepiness. Medications such as Demerol, Talwin, Robitussin, and Lodosyn all have 5-HTP interactions. Side effects include aggressiveness and rapid speech.
Individuals with Down syndrome should also steer clear of 5-HTP as it is linked to seizures. Finally, don’t use it 14 days or less before a surgical procedure as it potentially interferes with drugs often used during surgeries.
What Is the Best 5-HTP Supplement?
Caution is advised when shopping for 5-HTP. Remember, there’s a possibility that the supplement could contain high levels of Peak X. We have also read reports of customers being ripped off by sellers who provide fake products.
One option is to visit Life Extension and check out its range of products. The site stocks 5-HTP capsules from brands such as:
- Jarrow Formulas
- Natural Balance
- Source Naturals
Alternatively, one can opt for the 5-HTP (Griffonia Seed Extract) powder sold by Bulk Supplements. The brand sells it in eight sizes ranging from 25 grams to an incredible 25 kilograms! If the consumer chooses the largest package, they should resist the temptation to use excessive amounts. Bulk Supplements’ 5-HTP has earned excellent reviews on Amazon and boasts a high rating.
Final Thoughts on 5-HTP
5-HTP is a substance produced in the body. It is converted into serotonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, mood, pain, and appetite. Proponents of 5-HTP claim it is an effective means of increasing serotonin levels in the body. This could lead to benefits for conditions such as depression, insomnia, and migraines.
There is relatively little research performed relating to 5-HTP’s medical benefits. While there is some promising data, we need to see many more studies.
5-HTP could also cause side effects such as nausea and diarrhea. Users must also be wary of possible drug interactions, especially with antidepressants.
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