Serotonin is a crucial hormone as it helps stabilize our mood, happiness, and feelings of well-being. 5-Hydroxytryptophan, better known as 5-HTP, is a supplement used to increase serotonin levels. However, 5-HTP isn’t contained in foods humans consume.
Therefore, we need to use it in supplement form. 5-HTP has become a popular product in recent times, but does it warrant all the hype? Let’s find out in this article.
What Is 5-HTP?
5-HTP is a chemical by-product of L-tryptophan, a protein building block. It works in the brain and central nervous system, where it increases serotonin production.
The body produces the hormone through various chemical steps. It all begins with L-tryptophan, an amino acid. 5-HTP is one of the chemicals involved in the process of transforming L-tryptophan into serotonin.
Although we don’t find 5-HTP in food, there is a myriad of 5-HTP supplements on the market.
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.
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.
The answer to the question: ‘What is 5-HTP good for?’ depends on who you ask. Some people believe that it 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. It 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. The combination also appeared to increase sleep quality and quantity.
One 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.
The above are interesting findings, especially as GABA promotes relaxation. It seems possible that adding it 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 serotonin.
The belief is that 5-HTP could act similarly by increasing serotonin levels in the body. However, many of the 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. It is also worth noting that patients used between 150mg and 800mg of 5-HTP daily in most studies. Most companies that sell the supplement offer it in 100mg capsules.
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, leading to decreased appetite and calorie intake.
The vast majority of weight-loss diets ultimately fail. The process involves an increase in the production of hormones that make us feel hungry. The constant hunger pangs ensure that an individual finds it challenging to stick to a long-term diet. 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.
The medical field is aware that a lack of serotonin probably plays an important role in panic and anxiety.
The medical field is aware that a lack of serotonin probably plays an important role in panic and anxiety. Nonetheless, there isn’t enough research to show that using 5-HTP to increase serotonin is an effective tactic.
Using 5-HTP for Migraines
Severe migraines are often accompanied by symptoms such as blurred vision or nausea. 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 with migraines 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. 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. 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. There is a study published in 2011 that looked into the issue.
It 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 of the volunteers experienced vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea. It seems as if the higher the dose, the worse the side effects.
Although 5-HTP is potentially safe when consumed orally, some users have developed a condition called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). EMS is a serious medical condition with symptoms such as blood abnormalities and muscle tenderness.
According to a study published in 2004, L-tryptophan was discontinued as a dietary supplement in 1989 due to an outbreak of EMS linked to a single manufacturer. The researchers wrote that there were no other cases of toxicity involving the supplement despite global usage for over two decades. Therefore, the EMS link was possibly down to a faulty product, rather than 5-HTP itself.
5-HTP Drug Interactions
One of the main issues to contend with is an excessive level of serotonin production. Certain medications increase the production of the hormone. Combining these drugs with 5-HTP could lead to a dangerous level of serotonin production, called serotonin syndrome.
Therefore, it is advisable to avoid using antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, or Paxil with 5-HTP. Possible side effects include anxiety, shivering, and heart problems.
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.
Finally, experts suggest that children with Down’s syndrome should avoid the use of 5-HTP.
The relative lack of information on the supplement means there are no detailed guidelines on 5-HTP dosage. Consequently, we have to rely on the doses used during the available medical research.
For depression, subjects consumed 150-800mg of 5-HTP daily for 2-6 weeks. However, an appropriate dose depends on factors such as medical history, gender, and age. 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, and 100mg capsules. It is advisable to begin with the lowest available dose first before increasing weekly. Generally speaking, one may require more 5-HTP for insomnia and weight management than for migraines, pain relief, and depression.
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.
Proponents of 5-HTP claim it is an effective means of increasing serotonin levels in the body.
There is relatively little research performed relating to 5-HTP’s medical benefits. While there are 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. Begin with 25mg a day, and slowly increase the dose if necessary.