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The Health Benefits of 5-HTP

5-Hydroxytryptophan Uses and Tips

Richard N. Fogoros, MD, is a retired professor of medicine and board-certified internal medicine physician and cardiologist. He is Verywell’s Senior Medical Advisor.

5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan) is a compound produced in the body from the amino acid tryptophan. It is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin.

5-HTP is manufactured from the seeds of an African plant, Griffonia simplicifolia. The supplements have become popular because it is thought that providing the body with 5-HTP in pill form can boost the body’s serotonin levels, similar to the antidepressants that are thought to increase the amount of serotonin available to the brain.

Health Benefits

In alternative medicine, 5-HTP supplements are purported to help in the treatment of conditions including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Migraine
  • Hot flashes
  • Weight Loss

So far, scientific support for the claim that 5-HTP can treat any condition safely and effectively is lacking.   Here’s a look at some of the research studies so far.

Depression

Several small clinical trials have found that 5-HTP is as effective as antidepressants.   For example, in a six-week clinical trial, 63 people were given either 5-HTP (100 mg three times a day) or an antidepressant (fluvoxamine, 50 mg three times a day). The 5-HTP was found to be as effective as the antidepressant, with fewer side effects.

However, a 2002 systematic review of studies published between 1966 to 2000 found that only one out of 108 studies met the quality standards.  

The small study that did meet the quality criteria found that 5-HTP worked better than placebo at alleviating depression.

Migraine

Some research indicates that 5-HTP may prevent migraines and reduce the frequency and severity of migraines, however large randomized controlled trials are needed.  

In one study, 124 people were given 5-HTP (600 mg/day) or the drug methysergide.   After 6 months, 5-HTP was found to be as effective as methysergide in reducing the severity and duration of migraines.

Another study looked at 5-HTP or the drug propranolol for 4 months.   Both treatments resulted in a statistically significant reduction in the frequency of migraines. However, the propranolol group fared better, with a reduction in the duration of episodes and the number of analgesics used for the treatment of episodes.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by fatigue, widespread pain in the muscles, ligaments, and tendons, and multiple tender points.

A double-blind, placebo-controlled study looked at 5-HTP or placebo in 50 people with fibromyalgia.   After four weeks, there was improvement in pain, stiffness, anxiety, fatigue, and sleep. Side effects were mild and transient.

Insomnia

Serotonin is converted into melatonin, a hormone needed to regulate sleep-wake cycles. Because 5-HTP is thought to increase serotonin levels, it may increase melatonin and help normalize sleep patterns.

Possible Side Effects

Potential side effects of 5-HTP include nausea, dizziness, and diarrhea. Rarely, allergic reaction to the supplement may occur.

Children with Down’s syndrome should not take 5-HTP.

In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported having detected a chemical compound known as “peak x” in some 5-HTP products.   Peak x had been previously associated with the supplement tryptophan, which is made into 5-HTP in the body.

Tryptophan was taken off the market when thousands of people developed a severe blood disorder called Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome (EMS). The cause was later traced to a contaminant found only in batches of tryptophan manufactured by one Japanese company, Showa Denko.

Showa Denko, the source of up to 60% of all the tryptophan sold in the United States, had used an untested manufacturing process that reduced the amount of activated charcoal used to filter fermented raw tryptophan. Some reports suggest that purity may be a potential problem for 5-HTP as well. No cases of EMS resulting from 5-HTP use have been reported, however.

This is a list of some of the drugs that may potentially interact with 5-HTP supplements.

Dosage and Preparation

There is not enough scientific data to provide a recommended dose of 5-HTP. However, in scientific studies a dose of 150-800 mg daily is commonly taken for 2-6 weeks in the treatment of depression.   Less commonly, higher doses are used.

The appropriate dose for you may depend on factors including your age, gender, and medical history. Speak to your healthcare provider to get personalized advice.

What to Look For

You can boost your dietary intake of L-tryptophan, which the body converts to 5-HTP. Food sources include turkey, chicken, pumpkin seeds, spinach, milk, and bananas.

5-HTP supplements are found in health food stores, online, and at some drug stores. Be careful not to confuse 5-HTP with 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), the chemical name for the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Always exercise caution when buying this or any supplement. Supplements haven’t been tested for safety and due to the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label. Also keep in mind that the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established.

You can get tips on using supplements, but if you’re considering the use of 5-HTP supplements, talk with your primary care provider first. Self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a supplement that has become popular due to the belief that it can enhance mood, induce sleep, and promote weight loss.

I Spent a Month Testing Comedown Cures

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Somehow, I’ve worked my way into a career in which I mostly get paid to write about festivals and drugs. The upside is that I get free entry to lots of festivals; the downside—for my health and general well-being—is that I get free entry to lots of festivals.

I don’t spend every single weekend during the summer getting fucked up in a field, but this year, the gods (and various commissioning editors) decided that I would be heading to four festivals in as many weekends. Unfortunately, this schedule happened to cross over with perhaps the busiest point so far in my working life, meaning I was going to have to return to civilization from each weekender in an employable state, rather than having the luxury of moping around the house for days, buried under an avalanche of existential dread.

Clearly, I needed a cure for my comedowns.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the only real post-sesh salvation is a course of sleep, exercise, and positive thinking—that if you spend three days jamming intoxicants into your face, you should expect some retribution. But there is a world of impassioned advice online that seems to suggest it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. I decided to try the cures that were offered up here most regularly—a different one each week by serotonin-sapped week.

I started this experiment with some tablets containing 5-HTP, reason being that generally, the internet’s most championed cures for a comedown are:

– 5-HTP supplements
– Weed
– Tryptophan
– Sex and/or masturbation

Comedowns stem from physical ailments, not least tiredness and physical exhaustion, but they’re also caused by a depletion of serotonin (5-HT) and the degeneration of 5-HT terminals in the brain. Serotonin is one of the most important transmitters involved in mood regulation (as well as other processes, like sleep and appetite), and MDMA releases floods of it when you’re high. Thus, in the days after taking the drug, while your brain is still replenishing all that lost serotonin, you’re prone to feel lower. 5-HTP is a precursor involved in the production of serotonin, so taking a supplement containing it could—in theory, at least (there’s a dearth of scientific research in this area)—make you less likely to burst into tears during an episode of Couples Come Dine with Me.

My dose of 5-HTP came as a soluble tablet that contained ginseng extract, Vitamin B12, and lots of other healthy-sounding things. It looked and and tasted like a thinner version of Berocca. I plopped it in some water and away it went.

How sad was I afterward?
I actually felt weirdly giddy afterward and started hanging up the washing while my photographer watched. However, I’m not ruling out the possibility of 5-HTP being a placebo that had tricked my gullible brain into feeling good about itself. Either way, I wasn’t sad at all, and on Monday morning, I was running at 90 percent, which is definitely higher than normal.

Final score: A big, agenda-setting nine out of ten.

Week Two: Tryptophan

Tryptophan is the amino acid that gets converted into 5-HTP, which eventually gets converted into serotonin in your brain. Gorging on tryptophan, the thinking goes, should help stimulate serotonin production.

Regularly cited tryptophan-heavy foods are tuna, bananas, and eggs, so I put a tin of tuna, two bananas, and two eggs into a blender, with other tryptophan-heavy foods like tofu, pumpkin seeds, and milk. Then, I invited my photographer around to watch me hurl.

How sad was I afterward?
Let’s talk about this smoothie. The key thing to note is I fucking abhor tuna. When nuclear winter comes, it won’t be plutonium or uranium making our eyeballs bubble, but the toxic perfume of StarKist, carried up and over our burning cities by the mushroom cloud of that 100-megaton bomb.

Anyway, I took three sips and was convinced I would puke. I didn’t, but I did dry heave, cry a bit, and exhale some on the floor, which even my dog wouldn’t lick up. It was very, very bad.

The paradox with tryptophan is that MDMA actually blocks the enzyme that converts it into 5-HTP. So the whole theory doesn’t make much sense. But—and here’s the rub—after drinking it I was done for. It totally wiped me out. The second photographer left, I went straight to bed, googled “can you overdose on tryptophan,” and fell into a dreamless sleep before I read the answer. Ten hours later, I woke up in a ridiculously good frame of mind.

Final score: Eight out of ten. But it was a fluke.

Week Three: Weed

When it comes to comedowns, the message behind weed gets a little muddled. For many people, it’s absolutely essential when trying to get through those lowest ebbs. But—if you’re looking at it from a purely scientific point of view—it’s one of the worst things you can possibly do, because it’s a sleep inhibitor. It hinders your ability to reach the deepest sleep phases, which your body needs to recover.

However, there’s also a school of thought that if weed is going to make you chill out, won’t unduly interfere with your work or life, and will help you get to sleep—and thus enter a routine that, on the surface at least, resembles normality—then it’s worth a shot.

How sad was I afterward?
One thing I’d noticed on Monday was a weird twitch in my right eyelid, and—call me a hypochondriac!—weird twitches are not indicators of complete interior health, oracular or otherwise. Anyway, I gave weed up eight years ago, but actually quite enjoyed the hash—and it definitely did help me sleep, although I had to kick through some dense brain fog the next day. Also, it made me even more paranoid about the twitchy eye.

Final Score: Seven out of ten.

I’d done three of the four most suggested comedown cures and was left with the last: sex and/or masturbation. I’m currently single, so—while I can’t pretend my parents will shimmer with pride when they eventually stumble upon this “piece”—I’m not going to make it any worse by writing a paean to the restorative effects of jacking off.

Instead, I decided to surround myself with dogs. I’d read about dog therapy—the idea that being around dogs, among other things, can heighten your mood—and thought it might do me some good on this hairy Monday afternoon.

My friend Lizzy is a dog walker, and she picked me up from home before I’d even had a post-festival shower, with four dogs in tow.

I genuinely planned to just go, fill my lungs with some air, play with the woofers, and leave that meadow in a better mood. That’s it. There is no science. But then we came upon this glorified ditch claiming to be a pond, in which the dogs were all splashing around. I don’t really know how it happened—maybe it was accumulated madness from four weeks of excess, maybe it was the temperate weather, maybe it had been a ball ache to get some good dog pictures and you can’t fight the id’s desire to craft a vaguely arresting bit of content—but this happened:

And absolutely tortured myself in the process.