5-HTP stands for ‘5-hydroxytryptophan’ and is a naturally occurring precursor to serotonin.
To put that in plainer English, 5-HTP is a substance that increases the amount of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the ‘feel good hormone’ we associate with good moods and happiness. To do this, 5-HTP essentially provides one of the key building blocks that our bodies use to create it.
This makes 5-HTP a potential candidate for treating depression and anxiety. And seeing as it is available over-the-counter, many people do indeed use it to try and improve their moods. But is this a good idea? Let’s find out.
The Benefits of 5-HTP
Tryptophan is amino acid that can be found in most proteins and a lot of carbs. 5-HTP is a derivative form of tryptophan that is normally produced from the Griffonia simplicifolia shrub found in Africa. The seeds of this plant contain 20% 5-HTP. Because it’s illegal to use tryptophan as the active agent in supplements, using 5-HTP is a legal alternative (the exact reasons for tryptophan being banned are a little murky and it’s generally considered a mistake).
When we consume 5-HTP though, the body breaks it down to create more tryptophan, essentially achieving the same end. This in turn is then used by the body to create serotonin, which means that it can improve the mood and even combat depression and anxiety. Serotonin also plays an important role in memory, learning and appetite regulation – and actually 5-HTP can also be used to suppress hunger.
Essentially then, 5-HTP works very similarly to antidepressant medications prescribed by doctors but is much milder and therefore potentially safer (and available without prescription). One of the main forms of antidepressant used by GPs are ‘SSRIs’ or ‘Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors’ which work by preventing the removal of serotonin in the brain, thereby elevating levels even further. SSRIs can lead to tolerance and dependency however, which is why they shouldn’t be considered the ‘first option’ for those suffering with depression.
So does it work? While effects vary and the benefits are mild, a lot of users do say that they feel better when they use 5-HTP and that it can help them to overcome their feelings of depression. One study shows that it can be useful for preventing panic attacks (1), though a recent review shows that there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that it is effective in treating depression (2).
And either way, no effects will be noticeable unless you also consume enough vitamin B6 – which is also crucial for the production of serotonin.
Risks and Side Effects
What’s important to understand about your neurotransmitters though, is that they don’t work ‘in a vacuum’. That is to say that the actions of all your neurotransmitters are closely interlinked and you can’t increase one neurotransmitter without altering the levels of many others. What’s more is that neurotransmitters have different effects depending on which part of the brain they’re operating in.
Almost anything that increases serotonin for example will also increase melatonin. That’s because serotonin gets converted into melatonin, though this process also requires vitamin B5. 5-HTP can also be converted directly into melatonin.
What this means essentially is that using 5-HTP is likely to cause drowsiness. This is great if you also suffer from insomnia (3), or you want to use it as a sleep aid, but it might not be something you’re looking for if you already suffer with tiredness (a side effect of depression).
What’s much worse though is that 5-HTP also alters a number of other neurotransmitters and can also lead to long-term changes in the brain. While you increase serotonin for instance, this can actually lead to a decrease in dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (4). These are important neurotransmitters that aid with motivation, memory, focus and more.
As I said, neurotransmitters don’t work in a vacuum. You can’t just ‘pick and choose’ the neurotransmitters you want to alter. And when dopamine gets too low, 5-HTP actually starts to exacerbate many of the problems it is intended to improve.
Other side effects also include heartburn, heart palpitations, headache, stomach pain, nausea and muscle weakness. However, the majority of people won’t experience these issues.
5-HTP is also very dangerous when taken at the same time as SSRIs and other antidepressant medications, so always ensure that you disclose any supplements you’re using when you get prescriptions from your doctor.
In short? 5-HTP won’t have any serious side effects in the short term and might help you get a few more restful nights. This is not a long-term solution though and it’s never a good idea to self-medicate for mental health problems.