5-HTP is an amino acid that our body produces from tryptophan, another amino acid found in protein foods (meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, legumes and nuts). Once absorbed, 5-HTP crosses the blood-brain barrier and transforms in the brain into serotonin, a neurotransmitter which plays an essential role in the regulation of mood, anxiety, appetite and sleep .
Since it increases serotonin production in the brain, several researchers and therapists consider that 5-HTP can replace the antidepressants of the family of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs (for example, Prozac® and Paxil®). This is why it is attributed the same therapeutic uses to treat depression, migraine and headaches, insomnia, fibromyalgia, anxiety, obesity as well as various neurological problems.
It’s Griffonia simplicifolia, a plant of African origin found mainly in Ghana and Ivory Coast, which is extracted 5-HTP, more precisely from its seed, which contains 3% to 7%. It is also possible to synthesize it in the laboratory.
In the mid-1980s, tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin and “cousin” of 5-HTP, was a relatively popular dietary supplement. However, in 1989 in the United States, an epidemic of eosinophilic myalgia (1,500 cases, 38 deaths) occurred, the cause of which was attributed to tryptophan or a contaminant (peak X) found in some lots of this supplement. Another hypothesis is the excessive metabolism of tryptophan in certain subjects. Although formal proof of this causal link has not been established, the American and Canadian authorities have taken the problem seriously and have limited access to tryptophan, which is now only available under medical prescription.
In 1994, 5-HTP appeared commercially in North America as an alternative to tryptophan supplements. Remember that tryptophan is naturally transformed into 5-HTP in the body. In all, a dozen cases of eosinophilic myalgia which appeared to be linked to the consumption of 5-htp have been reported worldwide. In 1998, doctors from the Mayo Clinic (United States) detected the presence of contaminants in the family of peak X in certain lots of 5-HTP, but the methodology of their analyzes has been criticized. A warning has been issued, but 5-HTP remained over the counter in North America.
The first clinical trials on 5-HTP were carried out in Japan in the 1970s.
- Treat depression; decrease the frequency and intensity of migraine and chronic headaches; relieve symptoms of fibromyalgia.
- Alleviate anxiety and panic attacks; reduce appetite in people who want to lose weight.
N.B. In classical medicine, 5-HTP is used for the treatment of various neurological disorders, in particular cerebral ataxia and Lance and Adams syndrome.
- Take 50 mg to 100 mg three times a day.
Migraine and headache
- Take 300 mg to 600 mg daily. Start at 100 mg per day and gradually increase to avoid possible gastrointestinal discomfort.
- Take 100 mg three times a day.
Depression. Nearly 30 studies have looked at the effectiveness of 5-HTP (990 subjects in all) in treating depression: most are small and 11 of them did not have a placebo group. Among the ten double-blind placebo studies, seven concluded that 5-HTP was superior to placebo. All of the evidence is therefore difficult to interpret, especially since the vast majority of studies were carried out between 1960 and the early 1980s. And, even if five comparative trials were conducted, their results do not allow to conclude definitively that 5-HTP is as effective as commonly prescribed antidepressants.
Migraine and chronic headaches. Ten clinical trials of poor methodological quality have examined the efficacy of 5-HTP in this regard. Results indicate that 400 mg to 600 mg of 5-HTP per day can decrease the frequency and intensity of migraines and headaches (599 subjects in all). In one of these studies, 5-HTP (600 mg daily for 6 months) was as effective as methygerside, a drug used to relieve migraine headaches, while causing fewer side effects. Note that the vast majority of these tests date from the 1980s.
Fibromyalgia. The results of a double-blind trial of 50 people with fibromyalgia suggest that treatment with 5-HTP (100 mg three times a day, for one month) may relieve the characteristic symptoms of fibromyalgia (pain, stiffness, anxiety, fatigue) superior to placebo. The conclusions of a known study (without placebo group) on 50 subjects go in the same direction. Finally, in a trial conducted on 200 patients, the effects of a combination of MAOI-type antidepressants and 5-HTP (300 mg per day) were compared to those of each treatment alone: MAOI / 5-HTP combination that has been most effective in relieving the symptoms of fibromyalgia and migraines that people with this condition often experience. The authors believe that a serotonin deficiency is common to these two pathologies and other researchers have also stressed the link between low serotonin levels and fibromyalgia.
Anxiety and panic attacks. Results of a double-blind placebo-controlled trial of 45 subjects indicate that 5-HTP may moderately reduce anxiety disorders. In addition, recent studies indicate that 5-HTP can alleviate panic attacks, as well as night terrors in children aged 3 to 10 years.
Weightloss. Four preliminary clinical trials by a team of Italian researchers indicate that 5-HTP (from 750 mg to 900 mg per day) acts as an appetite suppressant and can facilitate the pursuit of dieting.
- The consumption of certain supplements based on tryptophan and 5-HTP has been associated with periods of eosinophilic myalgia (see the “History” section above). Although no causal link has been clearly established between this disease and these substances, or a contaminant (peak X), experts believe that caution is advised and that it is better to take this supplement under the supervision of a health professional.
- Due to the lack of long-term toxicological data, it is recommended that pregnant and breastfeeding women avoid 5-HTP supplements.
- It has been noted that in patients with Down’s syndrome, prolonged treatment with 5-HTP causes seizures in 15% of patients.
- Do not use in case of scleroderma (thickening and hardening of the skin).
- Mild gastrointestinal disturbances (nausea in particular), generally temporary.
- 5-HTP can cause drowsiness.
With plants or supplements
- The effects of taking 5-HTP and St. John’s Wort or other natural antidepressants are not fully known. This combination should only be taken under the supervision of a healthcare practitioner.
- The effects of taking any antidepressant medication of any type (SSRI, tricyclic or atypical) and 5-HTP could theoretically dangerously increase the level of serotonin in the brain. An excess of serotonin can possibly result in serotonin syndrome (nausea, agitation, tremors, tachycardia, etc.) or that of Call-Fleming, a vasoconstriction of the cerebral arteries which leads, among other symptoms, to severe headaches (thunderclap headache) and neurological disorders. Although no cases have been reported, it is best to take this combination under medical supervision.
- The effects of taking 5-HTP and certain analgesics (dextrometorphan, meperidine, pentazocine, tramadol) could theoretically cause serotonin syndrome or Call-Fleming syndrome.
- Taking Carbidopa and 5-HTP at the same time significantly increases the level of 5-HTP in the blood. This combination can also cause scleroderma.
- Serotonin antagonists. These drugs (methygerside, cyproheptadine) can inhibit the effects of 5-HTP.