5-HTP or 5-hydroxytryptophan is a compound naturally produced within the body from the amino acid tryptophan. It is also sold as a dietary supplement, although it is not normally found in the foods that we eat. The supplements are derived from the seeds of a plant called Griffonia simplicifolia.
Tryptophan is one of the essential amino acids, meaning that it must be present in the diet because it is needed as a protein building block, but it cannot be produced by the body. The body uses tryptophan to produce a number of different compounds, including a very important neurotransmitter called serotonin. Before tryptophan can become serotonin, it must first be converted into 5-HTP.
Neurotransmitters are compounds that transmit signals among brain cells and neurons. The neurotransmitter serotonin is important because it regulates mood, body temperature, sleep and appetite. It can be converted into melatonin, a hormone that basically puts us to sleep at night.
Low levels of serotonin and melatonin are associated with insomnia. Insufficient production of serotonin causes depression.
Taking serotonin by mouth or by injection does not resolve depression, because it cannot move from the bloodstream into the brain. There is a group of cells known as the blood brain barrier that prevent large molecules and microscopic organisms, such as bacteria, from entering the brain. Serotonin cannot cross this barrier.
Prescription anti-depressants work by preventing the breakdown or “reuptake” of serotonin. They are referred to as “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors” or SSRIs.
Taking 5-hydroxytryptophan allows the body to produce more serotonin. As a dietary supplement, it is recommended for depression, insomnia and losing weight.
Tryptophan dietary supplements are recommended for the same purposes. 5-HTP may be more effective than tryptophan because only one step is required for the body to convert it to serotonin.
Tryptophan supplements were banned in the US and other countries during the years of 1991 to 2001. An outbreak of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) was blamed on the dietary supplement. EMS is an incurable and life-threatening disease. Researchers have two theories about what caused the outbreak.
One is that impurities were introduced during the manufacturing process. Over 60 different impurities were found in the batches produced by a Japanese plant. At the time of the outbreak, the plant was the leading manufacturer of the supplement. While the supplement is now being sold in the US, the ban on importation has not been lifted.
The other theory is that taking large doses of the supplement leads to excessive production and activity of histamine, which may cause EMS. Some scientists fear that 5-hydroxytryptophan supplements could cause the same problem. Others point out that it has been used safely for over 30 years and is unlikely to contain contaminants because it is extracted from a plant source, rather than being grown in a bioreactor.
Most healthcare professionals feel that as long as patients follow dosage recommendations, there should be no problem. Although sold as a dietary supplement in the US, 5-hydroxytryptophan is regulated as a prescription drug in the UK. It is prescribed for treatment of depression and other conditions mentioned below.
Double-blind placebo controlled studies1 indicate that 5-HTP is beneficial for the treatment of fibromyalgia,2 chronic headaches,3 anxiety disorders, binge eating, insomnia and obesity.