Guide to 5-HTP

5-HTP, or to give it its full name, 5-hydroxy-tryptophan, is a unique amino acid that is derived from the seeds of a West African medicinal plant, Griffonia simplicifolia. We also make a small amount of 5-HPT ourselves from the amino acid l-tryptophan.

What does 5-HTP do?

As a supplement, 5-HTP is used to help lift a low mood, improve sleep and reduce headaches. 5-HTP acts as a building block to make the brain ‘happy’ chemical, serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT). Serotonin in turn can be converted into other brain chemicals, including melatonin which regulates the sleep-wake cycle and levels of other substances such as dopamine, noradrenaline and endorphins also increase after taking 5-HTP, these also help to regulate mood and pain perception. 1

Low mood

Several studies show that 5-HTP supplements have a positive effect on low mood, and are better than placebo in treating depression, with benefits usually occurring within two weeks.2 One study, involving 60 people with a first episode of depression compared the effects of taking 5-HTP against the prescribed antidepressant drug, fluoxetine, for eight weeks. Both groups showed a significant and nearly equal improvement in depression, starting from the second week of treatment and increasing over the eight weeks. By the end of the study, 73% of those taking HTP and 80% taking fluoxetine felt significantly better. 3

Headache

Serotonin has effects on blood vessel dilation in the brain and, by increasing serotonin production, 5-HTP can improve chronic daily headache, tension headache and migraine. A study that compared the effects of 5-HTP against those of a prescribed treatment in 124 people with migraine found that 75% taking the medicine and 71% taking 5-HTP improved. 5-HPT produced greater effects against the intensity and duration of migraine attacks, and was associated with fewer side effects. 4

Sleep

5-HTP is helpful in treating insomnia, as it boosts the production of melatonin, your natural sleep hormone. Sleep studies suggest that 5-HTP significantly extends the amount of time spent in REM (rapid eye movement, or dreaming) sleep by 53%, so you wake feeling more refreshed. 5 In some people 5-HTP may trigger vivid dreams.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a condition associated with pain, sleep disturbances and fatigue that has been linked with low serotonin levels. Taking 5-HTP supplements may help to improve pain, the number of tender points, morning stiffness, sleep patterns, anxiety and fatigue 6, 7 .

Getting 5-HTP from your diet

5-HTP is not naturally available in the diet but is added to some night time chocolate drinks designed to aid a good night’s rest.

5-HTP safety

5-HTP should not be taken at the same time as prescription anti-depressant drugs.

If 5-HTP causes drowsiness, do not drive, or operate heavy machinery.

The correct dosage

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 up to three months, stop for one month and review. This dosage can be repeated.

Unlike most other amino acids we do not use 5-HTP as a protein building block. Instead, it stimulates the production of important brain chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin which are involved in regulating mood, behaviour, appetite, sleep and pain perception.

Dr Sarah Brewer

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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