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The acronym for 5-hydroxytryptophan (or 5-hydroxy-L-tryptophan) is 5-HTP, a compound found primarily in the brain. This compound is made from tryptophan, a natural amino acid inherent in foods. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, which means that it cannot be made by the body. It must be obtained from food, particularly proteins. In the liver and brain, 5-HTP is converted to an important monoamine neurotransmitter called serotonin. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit signals between neurons (nerve cells) in the brain.

Taking 5-HTP increases the body's supply of the compound, which leads to higher serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin, also called 5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT, plays an important role in controlling behaviour and mood. It influences many normal brain activities and regulates the activity of other neurotransmitters. Having adequate levels of serotonin instills a feeling of relaxation, calmness and mild euphoria. Low levels of serotonin - serotonin deficiency syndrome - leads to depression, anxiety, irritability, insomnia and many other problems.

Conditions associated with low levels of serotonin include:

- anxiety
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- bulimia
- depression
- epilepsy
- fibromyalgia
- headaches
- hyperactivity
- insomnia
- obesity
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- panic attacks
- premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- schizophrenia
- seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

This compound has other effects on the body. It is an antioxidant that protects the body from damage by substances called free radicals (unstable, toxic molecules). In this role, 5-HTP may help slow the aging process and protect the body from illness. Because serotonin is used to make melatonin, taking 5-HTP may help achieve some of the same benefits as melatonin, such as treating jet lag, depression and insomnia. There is some evidence that 5-HTP can replenish the supply of the pain-relieving molecules called endorphins. Studies have shown that low levels of endorphins are associated with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, stress and depression. In addition, 5-HTP affects other neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine and dopamine.

General Use

In studies, 5-HTP has been proven effective in the treatment of carbohydrate cravings and binge eating, chronic headaches, depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, anxiety, and panic disorders.
Most of the clinical research with 5-HTP focuses on the treatment of depression. In 15 separate studies, 5-HTP was tested on a total of 511 patients with different kinds of depression. Over half (56%) of these patients had significant improvement in depression while taking 5-HTP. The compound was found to be as effective as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) fluvoxamine and the tricyclic antidepressants, chloripramine and imipramine. Most of these studies used relatively high doses ranging from 50?3,250 mg daily.

Three clinical studies have found that 5-HTP can significantly improve the pain, anxiety, morning stiffness, and fatigue associated with fibromyalgia. The doses ranged from 300?400 mg daily. In one study, 5-HTP treatment was as effective as a tricyclic antidepressant (amitriptyline) and monamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI; pargilyne or phenelzine).

Three clinical studies have found that 5-HTP use led to decreased intake of food, and subsequent weight loss in obese patients. The dose used in one study was 900 mg daily, which initially caused nausea in 80% of the patients.

A few clinical trials have found that 5-HTP can effectively prevent chronic headaches, including migraine headache and tension headache. In addition, 5-HTP compared favorably with propranolol and methysergide, drugs commonly used to prevent migraines.

In treating insomnia, 5-HTP is effective because it increases the length of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which improves sleep quality.

The symptoms of anxiety may be significantly reduced by 5-HTP. In studies, it instilled a sense of relief in patients with panic disorders.

Other conditions that may be treated with 5-HTP, but for which no studies exist, include chronic fatigue syndrome, premenstrual syndrome, Parkinson's disease and seizure disorders (such as epilepsy).

Although 5-HTP may be a useful alternative to conventional antidepressant drugs, one study indicated that it may be of no value for patients who have failed to respond to traditional drugs. In this study, patients who failed to respond to tricyclic antidepressants were treated with either 5-HTP or a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAO-I). Half of the patients improved with the MAO-I treatment, while none showed any benefit from 5-HTP treatment.


The 5-HTP preparation that is available commercially is isolated from the seed of an African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia. It is available as an enteric coated tablet, which does not break down until it reaches the intestine.


Long term studies on the safety of 5-HTP use have not been conducted. To be safe, 5-HTP should be considered a short-term remedy.
Pregnant women should not take 5-HTP because there are no clinical studies on the compound's use among this population.


Side-effects associated with 5-HTP are rare but may include headaches, mild stomach-aches, nausea, nasal congestion and constipation. There are anecdotal reports that taking high doses of 5-HTP causes nightmares or vivid dreams. Side effects may be minimized by starting with a low dose of 5-HTP and by taking it with food.


It is theorised that the effectiveness of 5-HTP may be enhanced by taking vitamin B6 and niacinamide. The action of 5-HTP may be enhanced by extracts of ginger, passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), St. John's wort, and Ginkgo biloba.

There is a chance of developing serotonin syndrome when taking 5-HTP with an antidepressant drug. Serotonin syndrome was seen in patients taking high doses (greater than 1,200 mg daily) of L-tryptophan and MAO inhibitors. Combining 5-HTP with an MAOI or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressant should be done with caution, under medical supervision.

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