5-Hydroxytryptophan, more commonly known as 5-HTP, is a chemical compound that occurs naturally in the body. It is also available as a supplement in pill form.
5-HTP is the precursor for or is transformed into the hormone serotonin. It is also indirectly involved in making the hormone melatonin (1).
These two hormones regulate our mood and sleep patterns, respectively.
5-HTP supplements are popular because they are believed to have plenty of physiological and mental health benefits. Some of its purported health benefits include; treating insomnia, depression, migraines, and fibromyalgia.
5-HTP is also believed to counter obesity and aid with weight loss.
However, the research into the efficacy of 5-HTP in various therapies is not yet conclusive.
This article looks at the research studies conducted on 5-HTP so far from an objective perspective. We will weigh each potential health benefit against research studies on the same to establish unbiased facts.
What Is 5-Hydroxytryptophan? (5-HTP)
5-HTP is a chemical compound that is produced in the body from an essential amino acid called tryptophan. It is a precursor for the hormone serotonin or the preceding compound in serotonin’s biosynthesis/formation (2).
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter or chemical produced in the nerve cells that helps the cells communicate through signals (3). Brain serotonin also regulates mood and impulse control.
90-95% of the serotonin produced in the body is present in the intestines, where it helps with bowel movement (4). Serotonin is also present in the platelets, central nervous system cells, skin, and tongue (5).
5-HTP is also indirectly involved in the production of the hormone melatonin. This is because serotonin is a precursor for the synthesis of melatonin (6).
Melatonin is a hormone that signals the brain to anticipate sleep when it gets dark, particularly at night (7). Thus, it helps regulate sleep at night.
Eating food rich in tryptophan helps increase the level of 5-HTP in the body. This, in turn, raises serotonin and, subsequently, melatonin levels in the body.
Tryptophan is available in both animal and plant food sources. These include; Chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, seeds, tofu, soy, and chocolate.
Is 5-HTP Safe?
The USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not involved in regulating 5-HTP supplements (8). That is because 5-HTP is considered an herb and not medication.
5-HTP supplements are made from the seeds of an African plant known as Griffonia Simplicifonia (9).
Research studies into the safety of 5-HTP supplements are conflicting at best.
5-HTP proponents argue that it has no toxicity. However, opposing studies associate it with a serious health condition called eosinophilia-myalgia (EMS) that affects the blood and muscles. (10) (11).
Current data suggest that 5-HTP supplements are “possibly safe” when taken in the correct dose for up to a year. They are also “possibly safe” for children if taken at the proper safety dose for up to three years.
There isn’t sufficient research into the effects of long-term use of 5-HTP supplements.
5-HTP may cause mild symptoms even when taken at the correct dose. We will highlight these symptoms and dosing considerations later on in this article.
5-HTP Health Benefits
5-HTP is believed to have a beneficial therapeutic effect on various health conditions. In this segment, we examine each purported 5-HTP health benefit against unbiased scientific research.
We aim to empower you to make an informed and independent decision to use 5-HTP supplements therapeutically. Let us get started.
1. Depression and anxiety
5-HTP proponents pose that it is effective in the treatment of depression anxiety symptoms. They argue that raising 5-HTP concentration in the brain raises serotonin levels, which improves one’s mood.
What science says:
Psychiatric conditions like anxiety and depression are associated with low serotonin levels. Therefore, 5-HTP supplementation is proposed as the easiest and safest way to up serotonin levels (12).
A series of research studies have been conducted into the impact of 5-HTP on depression and anxiety.
Meta-analyses or reviews of these studies have also been conducted. Most of these research reviews concluded that there isn’t enough evidence to support the clinical use of 5-HTP in treating these disorders (13) (14).
Some trials had a limited population, while others did not have a placebo against which to measure the effectiveness of 5-HTP.
One study found 5-HTP to have immense potential in the treatment of depression and anxiety. According to this study, 5-HTP can counter the activity of serotonin inhibitors.
However, the study posited that 5-HTP showcased poor pharmacokinetics (15). Pharmacokinetics is the study of absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion; basically, how medications act inside your body (16).
5-HTP was shown to have an immediate release. Drugs with an immediate release are dissolved instantly but leave the system just as fast, hence require larger doses (17).
While 5-HTP is viable as an adjunctive or alternative treatment for depression and anxiety, it is not clinically approved. Therefore, more research needs to be conducted on the clinical front.
2. Insomnia and other sleep disorders
5-HTP is believed to correct sleep disorders by increasing melatonin levels in the brain. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates sleep.
What science says:
Sleep is essential for the normal functioning of our bodies. Emotional distress, including psychiatric conditions, are some of the factors that negatively alter sleep patterns, causing sleep disorders.
As previously stated, 5-HTP is indirectly involved in the synthesis of the hormone melatonin. It is, therefore, plausible that 5-HTP levels in the brain are directly proportional to melatonin levels.
A study was conducted on mice to establish the effects of 5-HTP on sleep. One group of mice was administered with a 200mg dose of 5-HTP, while the other was given a placebo.
The study results yielded that an initial dose of 5-HTP induced wakefulness. However, it increases non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep when it was dark (18).
NREM sleep is one of the two types of sleep that occur during a sleep cycle. According to this study, 5-HTP promoted healthy sleep patterns by enhancing alertness during the day and sleep at night.
Another placebo-controlled study was also conducted to establish the effects of 5-HTP on 45 children who experienced night terrors. Half of the children, both male and female, were administered 5-HTP over six months, and their progress was monitored.
It had a notable success rate as 83.9% of the children given 5-HTP were free of sleep terrors after the six-month trial (19).
5-HTP, therefore, has great potential in the treatment of sleep disorders.
3. Reducing headache and migraine frequency
5-HTP is believed to cure different types of headaches, including migraines.
What science says:
Headaches and migraines arise from a variety of factors, including brain activity and genetics (20). In addition, lifestyle choices, like taking alcohol, can also cause migraines.
Previous studies among subjects with migraines noted that the patients had elevated 5-HTP levels in their urine when migraines occurred (21). This may support the theory of 5-HTP efficacy in treating migraines.
A placebo-controlled study was conducted among 31 participants with different types of headaches, including migraines. The participants were given 400mg of 5-HTP over two months.
5-HTP was proven to reduce the severity and frequency of the headaches. However, its success rate was not outstanding compared to the placebo (22).
The study concluded that 5-HTP had a modest effect on headaches. However, studies on the effects of 5-HTP on headaches are limited and largely inconclusive.
Fibromyalgia/fibrositis is a painful health condition that affects the muscle-skeletal system. Its symptoms include muscle tenderness, fatigue, altered sleep patterns, and mood changes (23).
Fibromyalgia also affects how the body processes pain, so people who suffer from the condition are more sensitive to pain (24).
5-HTP proponents posit that it can reduce pain and increase sleep among patients with fibromyalgia.
What science says:
A study to determine the efficacy of 5-HTP against fibromyalgia was conducted among 50 patients who had primary fibromyalgia symptoms. The study also aimed to establish the tolerability or safety levels of 5-HTP among patients.
Specific variables were monitored during the 90-day study. These were; the number of tender points, anxiety levels, pain intensity, sleep quality, and fatigue.
Almost 50% of the participants recorded improvements in the specified variables, while only 30% has mild side effects (25).
The study concluded that 5-HTP could improve fibromyalgia symptoms and is also relatively safe for patients. However, more research studies need to be conducted on the same for clinical approval.
5. Obesity and weight loss
The popular notion is that 5-HTP aids with weight loss among people with obesity through appetite suppression.
What science says:
A research study was conducted among 19 obese women with a body mass index ranging between 30 and 40. A healthy body mass range is between 18.5 and 25.9. The study aimed to establish the effects of 5-HTP on feeding behavior, mood, and weight loss.
The five-week study was placebo-controlled. The participants were either given 8mg /kg in body weight per day or a placebo.
There were no dietary restrictions, but food intake (type and quantity) was monitored using an issued food diary every three days.
When the study was concluded, there was a slight decrease in food consumption and weight among the participants that took 5-HTP. There was, however, no change in any of the indicators above in the placebo group.
There was also no change in mood for the 5-HTP group (26).
According to science, when the brain has optimum serotonin levels, a normal food bolus makes one feel full. The normal food bolus is the number of calories an individual needs to feel full without overeating (27).
It varies from person to person.
Another study shows that 5-HTP has a greater potential for treating obesity when combined with other compounds (28). However, more research needs to be conducted on the subject matter.
5-HTP Side Effects
Earlier on, we mentioned that 5-HTP is “possibly safe” partly due to the possibility of various side effects. These side effects include:
- Stomach problems
- Sexual dysfunction
- Muscle problems
The side effects are mostly dose-dependent. Remember, different health issues require different doses. If you have any of these symptoms after taking 5-HTP supplements, please seek medical advice.
Do not adjust the dose by yourself.
Usage and Dosing Considerations
There is no consensus on the safe daily recommended dose of 5-HTP supplements for two major reasons. First, 5-HTP is not regulated by the FDA, so the supplement manufacturers decide what goes into their product.
Second, different adjunctive therapies require varying doses of 5-HTP. The doses range from 50mg to 3000mg per day for various therapies.
Your best bet would be to consult a doctor before taking 5-HTP supplements. Avoid prescribing yourself the supplement to avoid adverse effects.
Secondly, adhere to the prescribed dose and watch out for any side effects.
Risks and Precautions
The issue of 5-HTP safety remains a divisive one. First, while 5-HTP is potentially safe, some studies link it to EMS. Second, there is no data on the effects of its long-term use.
Bear those factors in mind as you buy 5-HTP supplements.
There is also the issue of negative medication interaction, which can cause adverse health effects. One such effect is serotonin syndrome.
Serotonin syndrome is a life-threatening condition that occurs when serotonin levels in the body are elevated beyond normal. Mixing 5-HTP with other medications that raise serotonin levels may cause serotonin syndrome.
There is also no data on the effects of 5-HTP on pregnant and lactating mothers. Therefore, you may when to steer clear of 5-HTP supplements when in those conditions.
Consult your doctor if you are on medication or have any other health conditions that you think the supplements may affect.
Who should not take 5-HTP?
People who are already on medication that raise serotonin levels, such as anti-depressants.
Is 5-HTP an anti-depressant
Some research studies have found 5-HTP to have anti-depressant properties. However, it is not an anti-depressant because it is not yet clinically proven to treat depression.
More research needs to be done on its efficacy as an anti-depressant.
Which is better, 5-HTP or melatonin?
It depends on the type of adjunctive therapy you want. Like any supplements, they both have side effects, so weigh the pros and cons of each before use.
Is 5-HTP good for your liver?
There is not enough scientific data at the moment to prove that 5-HTP causes liver damage.
Can 5-HTP make you feel worse?
The use of 5-HTP in treating depression and anxiety is still under study. Also, remember that people react differently to different substances; what works for someone else may not work for you.
The Bottom Line
5-HTP has many potential health benefits that are yet to be proven. It also has quite a list of probable side effects.
Just like with any other supplements, exercise caution when buying 5-HTP supplements, especially over the counter. Remember, supplements are for adjunctive therapy and not clinically medication that is certified for treating illnesses.
Ensure you consult your doctor before taking 5-HTP supplements and adhere to the recommended dose.
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