Are you feeling low? Carrying a few extra pounds? Not sleeping well? These are some of the complaints that have become more common over the past two years.
There is still a lot of individual and collective fallout from the pandemic, and as a result, it’s taking some of us longer than others to feel well again. Take heart, there is nutritional help to right-your-ship. 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) has documented positive effects on emotional well-being, sleep, appetite, and even pain. Here’s what you need to know about it.
5-HTP is an amino acid that our body uses to make serotonin. It occurs naturally in small amounts in the body, and it can also be taken in supplement form. Despite being naturally occurring, 5-HTP is not found in the foods we eat. 5-HTP supplements are made from the seeds of a plant called Griffonia simplicifolia, which is native to West and Central Africa.
Available over the counter as a dietary supplement in North America and the UK, 5-HTP is sold as a prescription medicine for depression in many European countries. Being a precursor to our major feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, 5-HTP can help lift a low mood. A 2020 meta-analysis of 13 published clinical trials concluded that supplemental 5-HTP helps life seem brighter for trial participants experiencing sadness.
The body uses serotonin to make melatonin, which is one reason mood and sleep are so intimately connected. 5-HTP has been shown to promote peaceful slumber. In people with poor sleep quality, 5-HTP helps lengthen the duration of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the period of sleep in which we dream. REM is important because it engages the areas of the brain that help with learning and memory. We tend to experience less REM sleep as we age.
When we are low on happy hormones, things hurt more. In other words, serotonin influences pain tolerance. Chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, are often associated with serotonin imbalances. In studies lasting up to one year, supplementing with 300–400 mg of 5-HTP per day improved symptoms such as musculoskeletal pain, tenderness, and morning stiffness in fibromyalgia.
Everyone craves comfort food sometimes, but you might be trying to feed an emotional hunger if you find that you self-soothe with food regularly. Normal serotonin levels allow the brain to recognize feelings of satiety (fullness and satisfaction) after eating. Restoring serotonin may help control appetite and carbohydrate cravings. In one placebo-controlled study, obese women took 5-HTP daily for five weeks. Even without having prescribed dietary restrictions, the women taking 5-HTP ate less and lost weight during the study.
We all need help sometimes to regain our equilibrium, and for some of us, 5-HTP may provide enough support to do just that.
Safety and Side Effects
5-HTP is generally safe and well tolerated with few side effects. Some people experience stomach upset, which may be minimized by taking it with food. Vivid dreams are another occasionally reported reaction. 5-HTP shouldn’t be taken with other medications or supplements that can also raise serotonin, such as antidepressants, St. John’s Wort, over-the-counter cold and cough medication containing dextromethorphan (DM), and others. If you’re not sure, ask your health care practitioner or pharmacist. 5-HTP may make you drowsy, so try it initially in the evening or on a day when you can stay near home in case you feel tired.
When choosing 5-HTP supplements, look for a time-released or enteric-coated formula. This will deliver the nutrient steadily over a few hours, avoiding uneven serotonin levels and gastrointestinal side effects that may occur with a standard-release product. Typical amounts used in clinical trials range between 150 mg and 400 mg per day, usually divided into three doses. Check the product you are purchasing for the correct dose for the desired benefit.