5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, is a unique amino acid that is only found in two places in nature – in the human body and in the seeds of a West African medicinal plant, Griffonia simplicifolia.
In the body, 5 HTP is made from an amino acid, l-tryptophan, which is found in small amounts in foods such as turkey, chicken, meat and dairy products such as cheese.
Why you need 5 HTP
Unlike most other amino acids we do not use it as a protein building block. Once absorbed into the circulation, 5-HTP becomes concentrated in the brain, where it stimulates the production of important neurotransmitters such as serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT), melatonin and endorphins which help to regulate mood, behaviour, appetite, sleep, pain perception and impulse control.
Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, insomnia, anxiety, premenstrual syndrome, binge eating disorders, fibromyalgia, and migraine. As serotonin levels are partly dependent on levels of 5-HTP, supplements may help to overcome these conditions by increasing serotonin synthesis.
5HTP is an antidepressant
The most commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs, SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) work by raising levels of serotonin in the brain. These drugs don’t increase serotonin synthesis, however, they block it’s re-uptake so that its levels within the communication gaps (synapses) between brain cells increase.
If you are making very little serotonin, SSRIs may not produce a significant response, or may do so only slowly. As 5-HTP helps to boost production of serotonin in the brain, it tends to have a faster onset of action than prescription-only SSRI anti-depressant drugs. Because of its mode of action, it often produces good results in people who have not previously responded to standard SSRI antidepressant drugs.
Levels of other important brain chemicals also increase after taking 5-HTP, including melatonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and beta-endorphin.
5 HTP and depression
Several studies show that 5-HTP supplements have a positive effect on low mood, and are better than placebo at alleviating depression. Out of more than 500 people with depression, over half (56%) showed significant improvement in mood, with benefits usually occurring within two weeks
5 HTP and headache
Serotonin has effects on blood vessel dilation in the brain, to relieve pounding headaches. By increasing serotonin production, 5-HTP can improve chronic daily headache, tension headache and migraine. It also helps fight pain by boosting production of the brain’s own morphine-like endorphins.
5 HTP and sleep
5-HTP can improve insomnia as it is involved in the production of your natural sleep hormone, melatonin. Supplements can improve the architecture of sleep by extending the period of time spent in REM (rapid eye movement, or dreaming) sleep so you wake up feeling more refreshed. However, an estimated 2.5% of people taking 5-HTP experience insomnia and in some people it may trigger vivid dreams.
5 HTP and fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition associated with chronic pain and sleep difficulties. People with fibromyalgia have low serotonin levels and can respond to 5-HTP supplements Trials have shown improvement in pain, the number of tender points, morning stiffness, sleep patterns, anxiety and fatigue.
5 HTP and weight loss
Raised levels of serotonin help to trigger feelings of satiety, so you feel more full, less hungry and with decreased interest in food. This may make 5-HTP helpful for people with binge eating disorder. It has been shown to decrease carbohydrate cravings and binge eating even in the absence of a structured diet, and may help to support weight loss as part of a healthy eating and exercise regime.
5 HTP dose
Start with 100mg at night, increasing if necessary to a maximum of 300mg daily. It may take a few weeks to notice the full effects. Use for three months, stop for one month and review. This dosage can be repeated.
5 HTP safety
5-HTP should not be taken at the same time as prescription anti-depressant drugs, except under medical advice and supervision.
Since 5-HTP may cause drowsiness, it should not be used while driving a car or operating heavy machinery.
In the late 1980s, researchers found an unknown contaminant in some 5-HTP supplements that was referred to as ‘Peak X’. This was associated with a serious illness known as eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS) which caused muscle and joint pain, fever, weakness, swelling and shortness of breath. The contaminant was traced to a single Japanese manufacturer and appeared to arise during their filtration process. All 5-HTP sources are now screened to ensure they are ‘Peak X free’.