The Benefits Of 5-HTP

A koala asleep. Koalas like humans rely on serotonin which is produced from tryptophan via 5-HTP.

If you are interested in sleep and any issues on brain and mental health then pay particular attention to a compound which is found naturally but is often available as a supplement in its purified form. This compound is called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan).  It is usually produced in the body from the amino acid tryptophan. The other key feature is that it is a precursor for the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin.

5-HTP is extracted and purified from the seeds of an African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia.

Possible Health Benefits Of Supplementation With 5-HTP

In many research studies and herbal medicine, 5-HTP supplements are reckoned to help in the treatment of conditions. These include:
  • Weight Loss
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Migraine
  • Hot flushes and the menopause

So far the scientific support for any claims that 5-HTP can treat any health issue or condition safely and effectively is still lacking. However, the the body of research examining each condition has gathered pace in many years. Now we examine some of the pertinent studies available to support various claims made for the efficacy of 5-HTP.

5-HTP And Serotonin.

Serotonin is a hormone that is needed by the body for regulating mood, sleep, general well-being and otehr aspects of good mental health. The production of serotonin depends on the availability of 5-HTP which is turn depends on available levels of the amino acid tryptophan.

The other key element is the activity of various enzymes involved in manufacture of each component. These enzymes are tryptophan hydroxylase, indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase, and tryptophan 2,3-dioxygenase (TDO). Their synthesis is also regulated at the gene level and this is managed tightly because of the consequences to the body of any imbalances.

The amount of 5-HTP reaching the central nervous system (CNS) is affected by the extent to which this compound (5-HTP) is converted to serotonin. This conversion is controlled by the enzyme amino acid decarboxylase, which, in the periphery, can be blocked by peripheral decarboxylase inhibitors (PDIs) such as carbidopa.  

5-HTP And Weight Loss Supplements

Supplements containing 5-HTP have become popular because it is believed that providing the body with 5-HTP in a pill form can boost the body’s serotonin levels. The effect is  similar to the role of  antidepressants which are thought to increase the amount of serotonin available to the brain.

5-HTP may generate feelings of satiety which is a feeling in the stomach of being full  fullness. This effect could mean we eat less and lose weight in the process. The compound makes for the ideal weightloss pill. Weight loss may increase the production of particular hormones that make you feel hungry. These feelings of constant hunger can make losing weight unsustainable in the long term.

5-HTP may counteract these hunger-inducing hormones, working to suppress appetite and help you lose weight.

In one study, 20 people with diabetes were randomly assigned to receive either 5-HTP or a placebo for two weeks. The results showed that those who received 5-HTP consumed approximately 435 fewer calories per day, compared to the placebo group.

There is a related effect of potential benefit in diabetes management. One study showed that  5-HTP also inhibited the intake of calories from carbohydrates, which was associated with improved blood sugar control.

Many other studies have also found that 5-HTP increased feelings of fullness and helped with weight loss in overweight or obese people.

There are some animal studies which show that 5-HTP may reduce excessive food intake due to stress or depression.

5-HTP And The Reduction in Stress And Depression by Raising Serotonin Levels In The Brain

There are a number of studies now that  show the symptoms of depression could be reduced if 5-HTP levels were higher. This is linked to raising serotonin levels in the brain. 5-HTP supplements are thought to treat depression by increasing serotonin levels. The phenomenon however is still under considerable investigation but the research shows considerable promise.

While the exact cause of depression is largely a mystery it is becoming a target for a great deal of research in the light of studies on dementia and other brain or mental health issues. It is thought that a serotonin imbalance may influence your mood in a way that produces depression (Albert & Benkelfat, 2013; Cowan & Browning, 2015).

5-HTP And Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by fatigue, widespread pain in the muscles, in the bones, the ligaments, and tendons, and various multiple tender points. The cause is not well understood but is possibly linked to low levels of serotonin (Juhl, 1998; Nihalani et al., 2006). Supplementation might alleviate the condition but there are not enough studies yet to demonstrate a clear enough benefit.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study assessed 5-HTP or a placebo in 50 people with fibromyalgia. After four weeks, there was improvement in the reduction of pain, stiffness, anxiety, fatigue, and sleep. Side effects were mild and transient. 

Migraine And 5-HTP

Some research indicates that 5-HTP may prevent migraines and reduce the frequency and severity of these debilitating events. Better and larger randomized controlled trials are required to justify any claims.
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.

5-HTP And Insomnia

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain which is produced from serotonin. Melatonin helps the brain’s bio-clock stay remain in synchronicity and  regulates sleep-wake cycles on a daily basis. A strong and well-maintained bio clock with regular sleeping and waking routines are the cornerstone of healthy, restful, rejuvenating sleep.
Low levels of melatonin production produce sleep disorders and defaults in the sleep-wake cycle and invariably insomnia.  Research suggests that 5-HTP supplementation may help by raising serotonin levels so that melatonin can be produced. This in turn is thought to shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and improved the amount of sleep. It is also believed that 5-HTP can be productive in improving mood, and easing symptoms of stress and anxiousness, which can in turn interfere with sleep.
Research also indicates that 5-HTP may be effective in helping to reduce nightmares in children.

Safety Issues

There are safety issues of supplementation linked to eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS) and serotonin syndrome.

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Albert, P. R., & Benkelfat, C. (2013). The neurobiology of depression–revisiting the serotonin hypothesis. II. Genetic, epigenetic and clinical studies. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences368(1615), 20120535. doi:10.1098/rstb.2012.0535 (Article)
Cowen, P. J., & Browning, M. (2015). What has serotonin to do with depression?. World Psychiatry14(2), pp. 158. (Article)
Juhl, J. H. (1998). Fibromyalgia and the serotonin pathway. Alternative Medicine Review3, pp. 367-375 (Article)
Kious, B. M., Sabic, H., Sung, Y. H., Kondo, D. G., & Renshaw, P. (2017). An open-label pilot study of combined augmentation with creatine monohydrate and 5-hydroxytryptophan for SSRI-or SNRI-resistant depression in adult women. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology37(5), pp.  578 (Article)
Nihalani, N. D., Schwartz, T., & Chlebowski, S. (2006). Fibromyalgia—: A Review for the Psychiatrist. Psychiatry (Edgmont)3(4), pp. 44 (Article)
Van Hiele, L. J. (1980). L-5-hydroxytryptophan in depression: the first substitution therapy in psychiatry?. Neuropsychobiology6(4), pp. 230-240 (Article).
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