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Pros and Cons of 5-HTP Supplements

The supplement 5-HTP is generally used for anxiety, depression, and enhancement of mood and feelings of well being. 5-HTP stands of 5-Hydroxytryptophan and is sometimes known as oxitriptan. It is an compound produced from the amino acid tryptophan is part of the biosynthesis of the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin. We say that 5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin and melatonin, just as tryptophan is a precursor to these two neurotransmitters. Tryptophan is used to make 5-HTP which is then used to make serotonin.

Serotonin is mainly produced and resides in our gut. But some of it is produced in the brain. It functions to regulate of mood, appetite, and sleep.

Melatonin is our sleep hormone, but also has other functions. Although, some people use 5-HTP to aid sleep, the evidence is not consistent. There are some anecdotal evidence that high dosages may cause vivid dreams or better dream recall. Whether this is due to 5-HTP or due to the boost in serotonin is unclear. Vitamin B6 have also been said to cause better dream recall. And B6 is another precursor ingredient to making serotonin.

Should you use 5-HTP? Although, you can find 5-HTP off shelves of grocery stores, it should not be haphazardly taken by the general public. You need to consult with your health care professional first.

Each individual case is different. And there are definitely certain circumstances or individuals who should not be taking 5-HTP.

Who Should NOT Take 5-HTP

WebMD says that...

"5-HTP is POSSIBLY UNSAFE for use. There is concern that it can cause a serious side effect called eosinophilia myalgia syndrome. Some people think this side effect is only caused by a contaminant in some 5-HTP products. ... Other potential side effects of 5-HTP include heartburn, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, drowsiness, sexual problems, and muscle problems."

But in particular, it says pregnant and nursing women should not take 5-HTP. People with Down syndrome should not take 5-HTP because of possible seizures.

WebMD has a whole list of drug interactions that if you are on then you should not be taking 5-HTP. In general, one should not take 5-HTP if you are on any medication for depression, anti-anxiety, MAOIs, and various others as listed.

And finally, people sensitivity to oxitriptan should avoid the drug.

You can read more about eosinophilia myalgia syndrome on wikipedia which talks more about the contaminant in bacterial fermentation of L-trypophan as being caused by a single batch of contaminated tryptophan from a Japanese producer. That happened a long time ago in 1989. Furthermore, 5-HTP is not produced by bacterial fermentation.

Peak-X is one of the contaminate associated with eosinophilia myalgia synddrome. There are now 5-HTP supplements that are guaranteed to be free of Peak-X.

The book The Cortisol Connection writes that ...

"5-HTP supplements are not recommended for children or for women who are pregnant or lactating. People currently taking prescription antidepressants, weight-control medications, or herbal remedies for depression (such as St. John's Wort) should not combine these treatments with 5-HTP supplements, except on the advice and guidance of a nutritionally oriented physician."

Although this book did not mention about 5-HTP raising cortisol, there are some indications elsewhere on the web indicating that 5-HTP can raises cortisol levels. In particular, this blog post of an individual who had negative experience of 5-HTP after a prolonged use.

The book Herb, Nutrient, and Drug Interactions writes that ...

"Both cholorimipramine and exogenouse 5-HTP can elevate serotonin and cortisol levels." [page 711]

Boost Serotonin Naturally

Instead of taking 5-HTP, one can try natural means of boosting serotonin first. There are other nutrients that may be deficient that are needed to make serotonin -- for example vitamin B6.

An article on PubMed says that "self-induced changes in mood can influence serotonin synthesis". So it is a two-way street. Changing what you put into your body can affect the mind. And changing your thinking can affect your body.

And of course there is exercise. There is an abundance of evidence that exercise improves moods. The same article says ...

"A large body of evidence supports the idea that exercise, including exercise to fatigue, is associated with an increase in plasma tryptophan and a decrease in the plasma level of the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine"

Exposure to bright light can also increase serotonin. Get out in the daytime sun is best. That is why some people only have seasonal depression in the winter when sun is low.

Tryptophan from Food Versus from Supplements

Foods containing the amino acid tryptophan for example may provide the raw ingredients needed to produce serotonin. However, the effect may be quite limited.

Amino acids are found in protein and you can see the type of amino acid that a particular food has from NutritionData.self.com, which lists some foods high in tryptophan. Spinach and certain game meats for example are on that list. Turkey also has tryptophan.

Tryptophan from foods is always safer than from supplement. Tryptophan in foods behave differently from purified tryptophan. The former do not raise serotonin in the brain directly, while the latter does.

That is because the body has a transport system for bringing amino acids into the brain. When eating meat, the various amino acids in the protein compete to get into the brain. Since tryptophan is the least abundant of all the amino acids in protein, it has a difficult time getting into the brain.

That is why contrary to popular belief, eating tryptophan from turkey or from foods does not necessarily raise brain serotonin. Nor does eating the little amount of serotonin from bananas, because the serotonin molecule does not cross the blood-brain barrier. All serotonin in the brain is made in the brain from precursor molecules such as tryptophan and 5-HTP, which both are able to cross the blood-brain barrier.

Note that the body's conversion of typtophan into serotonin requires the use of vitamin B3 and vitamin B6 dependent enzymes. So getting enough B-vitamin from foods is important. And B vitamin supplements are probably safer than 5-HTP as well.

Carbohydrate Improves Mood

Other ways to boost mood with food is having some carbohydrates which increases insulin. Insulin helps glucose (sugar) get into cells for fuel. So it helps provide the brain with fuel. Although, the brain can run on ketones from fat metabolism as well. And chronic excessive sugar and carbohydrate can lead to metabolic syndrome which increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Ward Dean MD writes,

"Ironically, the only dietary strategy that increases brain tryptophan supply is a high-carbohydrate, low-protein diet. ... insulin also clears most of the five amino acids that compete with tryptophan for a ride to the brain."

Thereby making less competition for tryptophan in getting into the brain.

Amino Acid and Brain Chemicals Need to be Balanced

If after trying these natural remedies do not work well enough, there are some instances for some individuals where 5-HTP may help when taken as needed for a short-time. It is probably not wise to take over long term. This is because you are tweaking brain neurotransmitter levels which needs to be in a delicate balance. And it is complicated.

An expert on this subject is Daniel Kalish.

A take-away point that he makes is that serotonin and dopamine must be balanced.

5-HTP increases serotonin. Tyrosine increases dopamine. However, long term use of 5-HTP will eventually deplete dopamine unless one also supplements with tyrosine. And the reverse is true. If you take tryrosine for a long time, it will eventually deplete serotonine, unless you supplement with 5-HTP. The video explains three mechanisms why this happens.

This is why Kalish recommends supplementing with both 5-HTP and tyrosine together rather than using one or the other individually. In general, the ballpark ratio should be 1 to 10 as in 100 mg of 5-HTP with 1000 mg of tyrosine.

However, it is best to test the neurotransmitter levels by an experienced partitioned in order to get a proper dosing. It depends on many factors including the person's age, health, and other factors as determined by your doctor.

Testing is complicated and traditional urinary neurotransmitter testing is not accurate. However, the video does mentions that DBS Labs using the Organic Cation Transporters test is the way to do this correctly.

In addition to taking 5-HTP and Tyrosine together, the video mentions other cofactors and supporting nutrients that are needed for neurotransmitter synthesis. And they are Cystein, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Calcium, Selenium, and Folate.

A blog post on Critical MAS has some more info on the Dan Kalish video.

In the book, The Mood Cure, there is a subjective questionair that estimates if you are low on serotonin or not. The same warnings that goes for 5-HTP, also goes for tyrosine. In addition, it mentions the following warnings for tyrosine...

  • do not use tyrosine if you have manic-depression or bipolar disorder, or have melanoma.
  • there might be adverse jitters and headaches reactions to tyrosine if you have Hashimoto's thyroiditis.
  • tyrosine should not be used if you have hyperthyroidism
  • if you are prone to migraine headaches, tyrosine may trigger them.
  • if you have high blood pressure, check with your doctor about it before using tyrosine.

The book does have some good words on 5-HTP. It writes ...

"As an antidepressant, 5-HTP is so effective that it has repeatedly matched or outperformed many of the most established antidepressant drugs, including Prozac, without the negative side effects so often associated with these drugs." [page 42]


Some Benefits of 5-HTP

While some says that 5-HTP is unsafe (read article on LiveStrong.com), there are opinions on the the other side.

Ward Dean's article writes that ...

"although tryptophan has been proven to be safe ... the FDA still shows no signs of allowing tryptophan back onto the market as a dietary supplement. Fortunately, a safe, natural and effective alternative to tryptophan has been researched for over 30 years. This substance is L-5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). 5-HTP is not produced by bacterial fermentation (as was the tainted tryptophan) nor chemical synthesis, but is extracted from the seeds of the Griffonia plant."

He believes that 5-HTP is superior to L-tryptophan supplements and preferred over SSRI (serotonin-selective re-uptake inhibitor drugs).

The book, The Cortisol Connection, confirms that 5-HTP is derived from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia. The book further writes that ...

"In a few small studies, 5-HTP has been shown to be as effective as prescription antidepressant medications -- and with fewer side effects." [page 238]

However, it is highly dependent on individuals where there are some "responders" and "non-responders".

In the book, The Chemistry of Calm, it writes ...

"The best-studied of the "precursor strategies," wherein you try to increase production of a neurotransmitter by adding more of the raw materials, is 5-HTP. .. Whenever there are signs of serotonin deficiency ..., adding 5-HTP may be helpful, especially if there are symptoms of depression along with anxiety"

But it does warn against taking 5-HTP along with SSRI as there might be too much serotonin leading to serotonin syndrome, which can be quite serious. But this usually occurs only if more than one serotonin affecting drugs are combined. But there might be a spectrum of severity of symptoms which can occur even in lower dosages.

The last question of the webinair linked here by Peter Bongiorno addresses the issue with serotonin syndrome and it appears to be quite rare.

The Mood Cure writes that some of the symptoms of serotonin syndrome includes intense perspiration, high body temperature, muscle twitching, rapid heartbeat, very low blood pressure, extreme fatigue, euphoria, drowsiness, overreaction of the reflexes, and so on. [page 219]

Note:

Author is not a healthcare professional and this is not medical advice. This is only opinion at the time of writing as of February 2013. Author may receive revenues from the display ads within article.

Comments 3 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

Good information, Bliss! I have no need for this supplement but I at least now know about it. Thank you!


joanwz profile image

joanwz 3 years ago from Katy, Texas

Good information to have. THanks


BlissfulWriter profile image

BlissfulWriter 3 years ago Author

I've just added a YouTube video to the article for those who wants to understand more about how amnio acids supplements and brain balancing works.

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