How 5-HTP Works

Updated February 21, 2017

5-HTP, the common abbreviation of a chemical called 5-Hydroxytryptophan, may relieve mild to moderate depression. People with depression suffer a wide spectrum of unpleasant feelings, ranging from vague sadness and loss of appetite to suicidal despair. 5-HTP increases the brain's level of serotonin, a hormone that helps regulate mood. It may also help reduce insomnia, headaches, obesity caused by overeating, and fibromyalgia (a painful, fatiguing ailment of the muscles and tendons). Because 5-HTP is considered a nutritional supplement instead of a drug, people may purchase it at grocery stores and pharmacies without a prescription.

What It Is

5-HTP occurs naturally in the human body. The food we eat contains essential amino acids, which control countless chemical processes in the body. Once the body digests the amino acid tryptophan, it converts it into 5-HTP, which is then converted to yet another chemical called serotonin. Serotonin plays a role in controlling our moods, while helping to regulate other behaviours such as sleeping and eating.

How It Works

Depression sufferers may have unnaturally low levels of serotonin in their bloodstreams. Many prescription antidepressants, such as Prozac and Zoloft, try to remedy this imbalance by reducing the amount of serotonin reabsorbed by nerves so the brain can make fuller use of it. These drugs are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). 5-HTP uses a different method to arrive at the same result. In converting to serotonin, 5-HTP increases the total amount of this mood-regulating chemical available to the brain.

Potential Dangers

5-HTP does not appear in the foods we eat. We consume its raw ingredient, tryptophan, in foods such as turkey, sunflower seeds and turnip greens, but these tryptophan sources seem to yield only a small amount of 5-HTP. The 5-HTP found on today's supermarket shelves comes from a seed called Griffonia simplicifolia. Tryptophan supplements were banned after researchers found a deadly contaminant in them called Peak-X. Although 5-HTP has taken over tryptophan's place as a safer alternative, some 5-HTP supplements apparently contain traces of Peak-X that could be dangerous in extreme doses.

Because 5-HTP can cause harm to people with certain pre-existing conditions, those who consider taking 5-HTP should first check with their doctor. People who take too much 5-HTP may come down with a condition known as serotonin syndrome. Serotonin syndrome, the result of too much serotonin in the body, can cause shivering, seizures and even death. Combining 5-HTP with antidepressants or other medications can also lead to serotonin syndrome.

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