Health Benefits of 5HTP
5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) plays an essential role in the body's production of serotonin - an important chemical messenger in the brain that is often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to experience joy, satisfaction or just plain happiness.
This can seem complicated and daunting, but it’s not nearly as complex as it seems. Like any essential chemical in the body, the key is making sure there’s a healthy balance. But what is it, exactly, and where does it benefit the body?
What is 5-HTP?
5-HTP is produced by the body from an amino acid called tryptophan, which can be found in food. It is a building block of serotonin and plays an important role in mood and sleep. 5-HTP supplements are commercially produced from the seeds of the African plant Griffonia simplicifolia which can contain up to 20% 5-HTP by weight. 5-HTP is not present in foods, and so supplements are popularly used.
Serotonin and Mood
Serotonin is a chemical neurotransmitter found naturally within the body, where it carries signals along neurons and between nerves. Often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’, serotonin is regarded by researchers as the chemical that is responsible for mood, social behaviour, appetite, sleep and memory.
Low serotonin levels often manifest as depression, anxiety and sleeplessness. The body’s natural production of serotonin can be disrupted by high-stress levels and the natural ageing process, and low serotonin levels are often a factor in age-related insomnia.
While commonly used to balance mood, 5-HTP benefits health in several other ways:
Whilst the exact causes are more than just chemical in nature, low levels of serotonin are believed to contribute to depression. 5-HTP appears to have a similar effect to selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI) antidepressant medications such as Prozac; it helps to raise the levels of serotonin in the brain by increasing its conductivity in the brain. This helps fend off some of the depressive ideations. Oral doses of the supplement are well absorbed too, with about 70% making it into the bloodstream and, eventually, into the brain.
Research into this effect is promising: many reviews of current research back up claims of its efficacy against depression and insomnia. By itself it’s been proven to be effective against moderate depression, but it’s also been tested alongside other chemicals; a study testing mixtures of 5-HTP and tyrosine (a protein used in the brain for alertness) showed positive results against depression and bipolar disorder.
Some people find that 5-HTP helps to improve sleep patterns and the quality of sleep. This may be because, much as 5-HTP aids the transmission of serotonin, it also aids melatonin transmission in the brain. This hormone dictates the ‘body clock’ related to sleep in the brain; imbalances can cause insomnia or other sleep disorders. This is particularly effective when taken in combination with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), another neurotransmitter than regulates the whole nervous system and can help against anxiety.
There is emerging evidence that 5-HTP may help to reduce the severity and frequency of tension headaches and migraines in both children and adults. Many drugs used to combat severe headaches use chemicals that affect serotonin levels, so this makes 5-HTP a natural fit. Research has found it to be helpful with many kinds of headaches, although this comes with a catch: the dose of it has to be relatively high in order to assist more than conventional drugs.
It would have to be about four times the amount of 5-HTP normally included in supplements (around 400ug instead of 100ug). This is advised against, as more research is needed to determine the effects of long term use of the supplement.
Cravings and Dieting
A four-week study found that daily 5-HTP supplements lowered cravings for carbohydrates in those on low carbohydrate diets (such as the Atkins) and as a result reduced calorie intake. The theory is that serotonin helps transmit feelings of fullness, meaning you’ll feel compelled to stop eating sooner into a meal. The issue with this theory is, while there is research proving a correlation between 5-HTP and hunger control, these studies are small in size (many have fewer than 20 people). So while promising, more studies with greater sample sizes need to be conducted before 5-HTP can be recommended.
How Much Should I Take?
While tryptophan is found in certain foods, such as turkey, chicken, and milk, 5-HTP can’t be consumed directly from foods. Instead, it needs to be taken as a 5-HTP supplement or converted from tryptophan-rich foods.
Currently, there is no official recommended dose for 5-HTP. Dosages often vary between 100mg to 400mg per day, which should be split into several dosages throughout the day. Studies suggest that higher doses may be required for weight loss or migraines however, further investigation is needed to determine the safety of 5-HTP at super strength dosages, especially over prolonged periods of time.
When using 5-HTP supplements for the first time, start on a lower dose around 50mg three times per day, and build your body up to the desired dose. Ideally, take 20 to 30 minutes before meals.
Studies involving children have used dosages of 100mg per day however, more studies are needed to determine the safety of 5-HTP supplements in developing brains, and so supplements should only be taken under the supervision of a healthcare professional. 5-HTP should be avoided during pregnancy or lactation due to insufficient evidence regarding its safety during this period.
5-HTP Side Effects and Interactions
5-HTP is very well tolerated when taken within the recommended dosages. Occasionally, mild side effects may occur, including nausea, heartburn, bloating and feelings of fullness.
If you are taking any prescription medications or antidepressants, consult with your GP prior to taking supplements. 5-HTP and SSRI’s both work to increase the production of serotonin, and so may interact with each other.
5-HTP, by way of affecting the chemistry in the brain, can support you with a range of conditions. Mainly, it has the greatest effect on your mood and sleep, helping to keep you levelled out when you might be feeling depressed. Of course, the brain is a sensitive and extremely complex organ, so with our current understanding of it we’ll never truly grasp the true effects of supplements on it.
If you’re currently on prescription medication or are worried that taking 5-HTP supplements may interfere with a medical condition you have, please consult a doctor before starting supplementing.