5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)

5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a chemical that the body makes from tryptophan (an essential amino acid that you get from food). After tryptophan is converted into 5-HTP, the chemical is changed into another chemical called serotonin (a neurotransmitter that relays signals between brain cells). 5-HTP dietary supplements help raise serotonin levels in the brain. Since serotonin helps regulate mood and behavior, 5-HTP may have a positive effect on sleep, mood, anxiety, appetite, and pain sensation.

5-HTP is not found in the foods we eat, although tryptophan is found in foods. Eating foods with tryptophan does not increase 5-HTP levels very much, however. As a supplement, 5-HTP is made from the seeds of an African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia.

In 1989, the presence of a contaminant called Peak X was found in tryptophan supplements. Researchers believed that an outbreak of eosinophilic myalgia syndrome (EMS, a potentially fatal disorder that affects the skin, blood, muscles, and organs) could be traced to the contaminated tryptophan, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pulled all tryptophan supplements off the market. Since then, Peak X was also found in some 5-HTP supplements, and there have been a few reports of EMS associated with taking 5-HTP. However, the level of Peak X in 5-HTP was not high enough to cause any symptoms, unless very high doses of 5-HTP were taken. Because of this concern, however, you should talk to your health care provider before taking 5-HTP, and make sure you get the supplement from a reliable manufacturer. (See "Precautions" section.)

5-HTP may help treat a wide variety of conditions related to low serotonin levels, including the following:

Depression

Preliminary studies indicate that 5-HTP may work as well as certain antidepressant drugs to treat people with mild-to-moderate depression. Like the class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which includes fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft), 5-HTP increases the levels of serotonin in the brain. One study compared the effects of 5-HTP to fluvoxamine (Luvox) in 63 people and found that those who were given 5-HTP did just as well as those who received Luvox. They also had fewer side effects than the Luvox group. However, these studies were too small to say for sure if 5-HTP works. More research is needed.

Fibromyalgia

Research suggests that 5-HTP can improve symptoms of fibromyalgia, including pain, anxiety, morning stiffness, and fatigue. Many people with fibromyalgia have low levels of serotonin, and doctors often prescribe antidepressants. Like antidepressants, 5-HTP raises levels of serotonin in the brain. However, it does not work for all people with fibromyalgia. More studies are needed to understand its effect.

Insomnia

In one study, people who took 5-HTP went to sleep quicker and slept more deeply than those who took a placebo. Researchers recommend 200 to 400 mg at night to stimulate serotonin, but it may take 6 to 12 weeks to be fully effective.

Migraines and Other Headaches

Antidepressants are sometimes prescribed for migraine headaches. Studies suggest that high doses of 5-HTP may help people with various types of headaches, including migraines. However, the evidence is mixed, with other studies showing no effect.

Obesity

A few small studies have investigated whether 5-HTP can help people lose weight. In one study, those who took 5-HTP ate fewer calories, although they were not trying to diet, compared to those who took placebo. Researchers believe 5-HTP led people to feel more full (satiated) after eating, so they ate less.

A follow-up study, which compared 5-HTP to placebo during a diet and non-diet period, found that those who took 5-HTP lost about 2% of body weight during the non-diet period and another 3% when they dieted. Those taking placebo did not lose any weight. However, doses used in these studies were high, and many people experienced side effects such as nausea. If you are seriously overweight, see your health care provider before taking any weight-loss aid. Remember that you will need to change your eating and exercise habits to lose more than a few pounds.

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Nutrition

Review Date: 1/1/2017  

Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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