Low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin are thought to contribute to a range of mental and physical health problems — such as depression, insomnia and obesity — so raising levels seems to be one way in which these issues can be managed. One potential way to support the body’s synthesis of serotonin is by taking 5-HTP supplements.
According to an article published in Nutrition Review, “Serotonin nerve circuits promote feelings of well-being, calmness, personal security, relaxation, confidence and concentration.” While research regarding its effectiveness has been mixed overall, 5-HTP benefits may include helping reduce overeating and weight gain, sleep-related issues, anxiety, chronic pain and more.
What Is 5-HTP?
5-HTP (which stands for 5-hydroxytryptophan) is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. It is made from the amino acid (the “building blocks of proteins”) tryptophan.
Tryptophan first gets converted into 5-HTP via the enzyme tryptophan hydroxylase, and then 5-HTP gets converted into serotonin via the enzyme L-amino acid decarboxylase.
In supplement form it goes by a number of other names, including Griffonia plant seed extract, Griffonia simplicifolia and oxitriptan.
What is 5-HTP used for? Most often 5-HTP supplements are taken to help treat symptoms and conditions such as:
- Sleep disorders, including insomnia
- Mood-related issues, like depression and anxiety
- Headaches and migraines
- Obesity and overeating
- Pain, including from fibromyalgia and PMS or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
- ADHD symptoms
- Parkinson’s disease symptoms and other neurological issues
- Alcoholism withdrawal symptoms
- Seasonal affective disorder
What does 5 HTP do for your body? It primarily works by increasing synthesis of serotonin, a “feel good” neurotransmitter. This is why it can potentially have positive effects on one’s mood, energy levels, motivation, appetite, sleep and nervous system function.
While serotonin itself cannot be taken in supplement form because it can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, taking 5-HTP is a way to provide the body with resources to make more of its own.
Here’s more about some of the top 5-HTP benefits and uses:
1. Can Help Manage Anxiety and Depression
While it doesn’t work for everyone, there’s evidence suggesting that 5-HTP supplements can help decrease feelings of stress, depression, anxiety symptoms and panic attacks in some people.
Why is 5 HTP good for anxiety? It can help boost serotonin synthesis in the brain. This can have a significant impact in some but won’t necessarily work better than prescription medications in others.
According to MentalHelp.net:
Some research has also supported the use of 5-HTP for treating depression, but the studies are based on small groups of people, limiting the conclusions that can be drawn about the potential benefits of 5-HTP as a generalized depression treatment.
How does it compare to SSRI medications (used to treat anxiety/depression symptoms)? SSRIs work not by increasing serotonin production, but by conserving serotonin that’s already in the brain by preventing enzymatic degradation of synaptic serotonin. On the other hand, 5-HTP can help the brain produce more serotonin.
Many times doctors recommend that people use 5-HTP along with other antidepressant substances or medications for extra support. 5-HTP may also be used by people who are SSRI-resistant against depression.
2. May Help Improve Sleep Quality
Does 5 HTP make you sleepy? It doesn’t work like sleep-inducing medications, which can make you feel very drowsy, but it may help you to feel more relaxed — which allows you to sleep more easily.
It’s been found that it works especially well for combating insomnia when taken with GABA and valerian root, which also have calming effects. This combination may decrease the time needed to fall asleep.
One way in which it can promote better sleep is via the conversion of serotonin to melatonin, a hormone that is important for regulating your circadian rhythm (your “internal clock”).
3. Can Reduce Pain and Fibromyalgia Symptoms
Some research has uncovered evidence that 5-HTP, taken in doses of at least 100 milligrams a day, three times daily, can help decrease a number of fibromyalgia symptoms, such as pain, tenderness, anxiety, fatigue and stiffness. In one study, a “fair” clinical improvement was seen in nearly 50 percent of the patients during the treatment period.
For the most benefits, it’s thought that supplementation should last for at least several weeks to several months.
It may also help mitigate migraine symptoms in some, another condition that is thought to possibly be triggered by serotonin levels. One study found that supplementing led to a significant improvement in 71 percent of participants who were treated with 5-HTP.
4. Potentially Helps Decrease Obesity
In one study, when a 5-HTP spray (containing other extracts) was taken for four weeks by postmenopausal women who were overweight, it helped increase weight loss significantly and reduce participants’ body mass indexes.
Another study that involved having participants take 750 milligrams of 5-HTP for two weeks found that supplementation was associated with less food, especially carbohydrates, and minor weight loss.
Possible Side Effects
Is 5-HTP safe? Overall it appears to be safe for most adults when taken by mouth in doses up to 400 milligrams per day for up to one year.
There are some potential 5-HTP side effects to be aware of, however, such as:
- indigestion and stomach problems
- fatigue and drowsiness
- sexual dysfunction
- muscular spasms and dysfunction
There’s some speculation over whether or not high doses may also contribute to muscle tenderness (myalgia) and blood abnormalities in rare cases.
This supplement shouldn’t be taken by pregnant women or by anyone having surgery within the following two weeks.
It’s also very important for anyone taking antidepressants/anti-anxiety medications to avoid using 5-HTP supplements. Antidepressant drugs can include SSRIs and MAOIs.
Because 5-HTP increases serotonin, and so do depression medications, this can cause levels to increase too much, which may cause side effects, such as abnormal mental functions and behavioral disturbances
Avoid using this supplement if you take any of these medications:
- fluoxetine (Prozac)
- paroxetine (Paxil)
- sertraline (Zoloft)
- amitriptyline (Elavil)
- clomipramine (Anafranil)
- imipramine (Tofranil)
- sedative medications (CNS depressants)
- dextromethorphan (Robitussin)
- meperidine (Demerol)
Is 5-HTP bad for your liver? It’s not thought to contribute to liver toxicity, but a related supplement (L-tryptophan) has in rare cases been tied to liver problems in the past, due to contamination issues.
Although tryptophan supplements have since been shown to be safe in most instances, they are still banned in certain countries. 5-HTP is considered a good alternative to tryptophan supplements and may work in similar ways when it comes to boosting one’s mood.
Dosage and Supplements
In supplement form, 5-HTP can be produced from the seeds of an African plant known called Griffonia simplicifolia.
Dosage recommendations vary depending on someone’s symptoms, however typically a range of 150 to 800 milligrams daily has been safely used in most research studies. While sprays are available, tablets taken by mouth are most popular.
Most often, people take a dosage between 300 and 500 milligrams. Sometimes higher doses up to 3,000 grams per day may be needed, but it’s a good idea to get a doctor’s opinion first if taking high doses, especially if for more than several weeks.
Most people begin by taking 5-HTP for about two to six weeks. Depending on how much is taken, the total dosage may need to be divided up into two to three doses per day.
It’s recommended that you start with a low dose and gradually increases every one to two weeks until a target dose is reached.
If your goal is to support satiety when eating and to encourage weight loss, try taking 5-HTP supplements before or with a meal.
- 5-HTP is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. It is made from the amino acid tryptophan.
- While not every study has shown that it’s effective in most people, potential 5-HTP benefits can include reducing anxiety, depression, overeating, weight gain, pain, headaches, sleep problems, neurological issues and more.
- Most often, people take a dosage between 300 and 500 milligrams. While sprays are available, tablets taken by mouth are most popular.
- While this supplement is generally safe, side effects may include an upset stomach, indigestion and muscular problems. 5-HTP should never be taken with antidepressants without a doctor’s supervision.