What is 5-HTP?
The amino acid 5-HTP, or 5-Hydroxytryptophan, is an important brain chemical made from another amino acid, L-tryptophan. It’s a precursor to the more well-known neurotransmitter serotonin.
Maintaining adequate levels of serotonin really makes a difference in the way a person feels. It can affect mood, quality of sleep, regulation of appetite and even pain levels. Since 5-HTP is needed to make other neurotransmitters in the body, it’s been the subject of a lot of studies. Can supplementing with 5-HTP improve the balance of brain chemicals, and therefore improve the way people feel? In some cases, yes!
5-HTP is available as a dietary supplement. It’s made from the African plant Griffonia simplicifolia and is available as a powder, capsule or spray. Studies show it to be helpful to boost mood, reduce migraine headaches, improve sleep, suppress appetite and minimize pain levels in some situations. It does have side effects, however, so more is not necessarily better. It’s also important to note that 5-HTP supplements don’t work well for everyone.
A Better Night’s Rest
Perhaps you’ve heard that melatonin supplements can help you sleep better. A hormone made from serotonin, melatonin indeed plays a big role in the sleep cycle. When your body’s melatonin levels rise (usually at night), you fall asleep. When they begin to decline (hopefully in the morning), you wake up.
Since 5-HTP makes serotonin, which in turn synthesizes melatonin, it makes sense that taking a 5-HTP supplement could also help with sleep. What do the studies show?
Research suggests that 5-HTP can in fact help people fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer and have less morning grogginess. However, it works best when combined with another compound called GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that relaxes the central nervous system (x, x).
No one can responsibly conclude at this point that a 5-HTP supplement treats depression. If you’re reading this and you feel persistently sad, anxious or hopeless, please seek professional help. Click here for more information on depression and where to get help.
That said, 5-HTP supplements can help boost some people’s mood and reduce depressive symptoms. It increases serotonin levels, which are tied to mood and feelings of well-being. However, given the variability in the way people metabolize neurotransmitters, it’s hard to say exactly who will benefit from 5-HTP and at what dose.
There are many studies looking at the anti-depressive effect of 5-HTP. Some show that 5-HTP does have a beneficial effect on depressive moods, alone or in combination with other therapies (x, x). Others, however, assert that while 5-HTP may be effective in some cases, more research is necessary (x).
It may also not work for everyone. For example, one study found that 5-HTP did not have a beneficial effect on young, healthy people. Instead, it seemed to actually impair their decision making (x).
Do you overeat when you’re stressed or sad? It turns out that perception of fullness and satiety can be related to the neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically serotonin. Human and animal studies found that manipulating the “serotonin system” can result in reduced caloric intake, especially of carbohydrates (x, x, x).
As we know, 5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin. 5-HTP supplements, which can help reduce appetite, make one feel fuller after eating and can be effective in helping people with obesity lose weight.
For example, in a study of 19 obese women, those who took 8 grams of 5-HTP were able to change their eating behaviors and lose weight over the course of five weeks (x).
Researchers found another benefit to 5-HTP. Weight loss and decreased consumption of carbohydrates can help those with diabetes stick to their prescribed diet and better manage their blood sugar (x).
Help with Chronic Headaches
Many things cause headaches. Screaming kids, tight deadlines, too much tequila — you name it, and it likely gives someone a headache. Sometimes, though, low serotonin levels are to blame. In fact, low serotonin levels might be a contributing factor in chronic migraines (x). Migraines are intense headaches that cause vision disturbances, nausea, fatigue and temporary inability to function properly (x).
5-HTP helps reduce the frequency and severity of headaches in some people (x). In one study of 124 migraine sufferers, participants either took a common migraine medication called methysergide or 5-HTP. The 5-HTP worked almost all well as the medication, and with less side effects (x).
If you’re one of the 2 percent of the population that suffers from fibromyalgia, you need no description. This debilitating condition causes pain throughout the body, sleep disturbances, mood changes, depression and headaches, to name just a few symptoms (x).
There is no cure for fibromyalgia so patients and their professionals focus on managing the symptoms. We already know that 5-HTP can help elevate mood, improve sleep and reduce occurrences of headaches. It makes sense, then, that research is focusing on 5-HTP for management of fibromyalgia.
Research is finding that 5-HTP supplements, alone or combined with other therapies, can help reduce pain, anxiety, fatigue and improve quality of sleep. This supplement may help improve symptoms of fibromyalgia because doctors suspect the condition could be due in part to low serotonin levels (x, x, x, x).
5-HTP Side Effects
Provided suggested serving sizes are adhered to, 5-HTP is safe to take. However, excessive use may cause mild side effects such as nausea, stomach pain, drowsiness and diarrhea. Should any of these issues occur, reduce dosage accordingly.
Pregnant/nursing women and those with Down syndrome should not take this product. Because 5-HTP can affect serotonin levels, this powder should not be taken within two weeks of surgery.
Sometimes, an excessive amount of serotonin in the body can lead to a deadly condition called serotonin syndrome. If you’re already taking a medication that increases your serotonin levels, please check with your healthcare professional before taking 5-HTP.
5-HTP is one of those supplements for which it’s important to listen to your body. Everyone’s brains are wired a little differently, and 5-HTP may not be right for you. Stop taking if it makes you feel off in any way (x).
5-HTP Suggested Dosage
The generally accepted dosage for 5-HTP is 50 to 200 mg daily with food, or as otherwise indicated by a healthcare professional. Be sure to reach out to a doctor before beginning supplementation.
The Bottom Line
5-HTP can do wonders for people. Because of its potential affects on serotonin levels, it can aid with sleep, perk up your mood, prevent headaches and even help you lose weight. It’s also relatively safe to take, provided you stick to suggested dosages and pay attention to how you feel when taking it. This supplement doesn’t work for everyone, but if you suffer from poor sleep, crabby moods or a pounding head, it may definitely be worth trying.
By: Ayoola Oni