5-HTP is an amino acid used in alternative medicine as a dietary supplement in the treatment of depression, insomnia and appetite suppression. A side effect of the clinical use of 5-HTP is an increase in dream vividness and dream recall, as well as nightmares. While 5-HTP is available without a prescription and has been used in folk medicine for centuries, questions remain about its safety and effectiveness as a natural health supplement.
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5-HTP and Serotonin
The central research claim, as discussed on UC Berkeley's WellnessLetter.com website, behind 5-HTP’s psychological effects relates to its role in producing serotonin in the brain. The mechanism of action here is the ability of 5-HTP to pass through the blood-brain barrier, where as serotonin itself cannot. Used for centuries in European folk medicine, 5-HTP is commonly synthesised from the African tree Griffonia simplicifolia.
Increased Dream Vividness
Elevated serotonin levels in the brain have been previously correlated with enhanced vividness in dreams. In a study published in the "Journal of Sleep Research" in 1991, co-author EF Pace-Schott details how subjects treated with serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) reported longer dream reports, as well as increased dream bizarreness than the baseline. In another pilot study published in the journal "Dreaming" in 1999, dream researcher Nilli Kirschner reports that a subject's dream report content became less violent with more elements of friendliness when taking sertraline, a popular SSRI, for depression. Taken together, these two studies suggest that increased levels of serotonin in the brain effect dream content, but, clearly, further research is needed to establish norms.
Increased Dream Recall
5-HTP may also elevate the number of dreams remembered in a night. This is probably the confluence of several factors, the first being the heightened vividness of dreams and nightmares. As author Michael Murray ND reports that 5-HTP improves the quality of sleep, the increased recall of dreams is most likely due to other factors then sleep awakening. Also, as suggested by EF Pace and colleagues, 5-HTP initially creates a REM dream suppression in the beginning of the night, resulting in a REM dream rebound in the second half of sleep. While 5-HTP can bring on nightmares, results vary for individuals. Interestingly enough, research by co-author Oliviero Bruni, published in the July 2004 edition of the "Journal of Pediatrics," has suggested that the compound can be useful in the treatment of children’s night terrors, a sleep disturbance that occurs in deep sleep.
5-HTP and Lucid Dreaming
5-HTP may also increase the likelihood of lucid dreaming, although the evidence is indirect. A lucid dream occurs when the sleeper knows she is dreaming. As suggested by author Thomas Yuscak in the book “Advanced Lucid Dreaming,” lucid dreaming is often instigated by increased dream recall, as well as increased dream vividness and bizarreness. Therefore, any natural supplement that achieves these aims safely may create an opportunity for the dreamer to realise she is dreaming.
5-HTP certainly effects the quality, content and recall of dreams, but, without more follow-up research, this effect should be considered hypothetical and not without its health risks.
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