What is 5-HTP Anyway?
Before we get into the research on and the benefits of 5-HTP, I would first like to briefly explain the following:
1- What is 5-HTP ?
2- Why is 5-HTP superior In the production of Serotonin ?
3- What are the Sources of 5-HTP ?
What is 5-HTP?
5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a chemical that the body is able to make from L-tryptophan (an essential amino acid that people can get from food). After tryptophan is converted into 5-HTP, the chemical is changed into another chemical called serotonin which is a neurotransmitter that relays signals between brain cells.
5-HTP is well absorbed from an oral dose, with about 70 percent ending up in the bloodstream. It easily crosses the blood-brain barrier and effectively increases central nervous system (CNS) synthesis of serotonin.
Since increased 5-HTP levels lead to an increase in Serotonin (Due to a combination of 5-HTP’s uninhibited absorption as well as later conversion to Serotonin in the body, and the laws of equilibrium that govern chemical reactions of molecules), individuals who supplement their diet with 5-HTP are actively working to help raise serotonin levels in their brain.
In the Central Nervous System, serotonin levels are implicated in the regulation of sleep, depression, anxiety, aggression, appetite, temperature, sexual behavior, and pain sensation. Therefore the therapeutic administration of 5-HTP to increase the level of serotonin in the body is thought to be effective in treating a wide variety of conditions, including depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, binge eating associated with obesity, chronic headaches, and insomnia.
Since serotonin helps regulate physiological conditions, mood, and behavior, and since 5-HTP results in increased amount of serotonin, then supplementation with 5-HTP may have the same positive effects as those caused by presence of sufficient amounts of serotonin in the body, effects such as good sleep, better mood, less anxiety, better appetite, and less pain sensation.
Why is 5-HTP supplementation superior in the production of Serotonin than relying on L-Tryptophan Only?
There are a couple of reasons why 5-HTP supplementation is a superior method to improve serotonin in the body, one of which is its availability over the counter, and while tryptophan is only available to the consumer through foods (Since 1989 Tryptophan Supplements have been banned by the FDA due to a controversial issue relating to contamination of the supplements produced by some manufacturers) it would still be inferior to 5-HTP for the purpose of increasing serotonin even if it was not banned.
The second reason 5-HTP is superior is that Intestinal absorption of 5-HTP does not require the presence of a transport molecule, and is not affected by the presence of other amino acids; therefore it may be taken with meals without reducing its effectiveness. Unlike L-Tryptophan, 5-HTP does not have a lot of uses in the body and therefore its exclusively gets used for production of serotonin.
Supplementation use of 5-HTP bypasses the limiting conversion of L-Tryptophan into 5-HTP by enzymes. So having sufficient amounts of 5-HTP directly through supplementation ensures that the body is able to produce enough Serotonin without dependence on the functions of enzymes to convert L-T into 5-HTP.
In conclusion 5-HTP is available over the counter, easily absorbed through the blood brain barrier, and is one step away from becoming Serotonin.
Where can I find 5-HTTP:
The amino acid tryptophan, which the body uses to make 5-HTP, can be found in turkey, chicken, milk, potatoes, pumpkin, sunflower seeds, turnip and collard greens, and seaweed. As a reminder you can’t get 5-HTP directly from edible food.
However, furtunately, 5-HTP supplements available and are mostly made from extracts of the seeds of the African tree Griffonia simplicifolia
Second, How does Serotonin work in our body?
Now that we established the basis of what 5-HTP is and its ultimate role in increasing the amounts of Serotonin in the body or brain, it would only be right to discuss how Serotonin itself works and the research behind its benefits as a chemical neurotransmitter in our body.
Bellow, we will discuss the following:
- What is a Neurotransmitter?
- What is Serotonin, and How Does it Function?
- What is the Difference Between SSRI’s and 5-HTP?
- What are the Conclusions from Clinical Research on 5-HTP and Serotonin regarding Mental Wellbing?
- What is the Dosage of 5-HTP and are there Precautions?
What is a Neurotransmitter?
So serotonin is a neurotransmitter, but what are neurotransmitters ?
A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that carries, boosts, and modulates signals between neurons and other cells in the body.
In most cases, and if the message is strong enough, a neurotransmitter is released from one neuron to another to deliver or inhibit a signal. The neurotransmitter achieves this by crossing the synaptic gap (the gap between one neuron and the next) to reach the receptor site of the next cell or neuron. Then, in a process known as re-uptake, the neurotransmitter is detached from the receptor of the second neuron/cell and re-taken by the first neuron. Neurotransmitters can help induce an excitatory effect on neurons (helping propagate the message) or cause an inhibitory effect on the neuron which results in the inhibition of the message transmitted through the neurons. Both Excitatory and Inhibitory neurotransmitters may be acting on the same neuron at the same time and the summation of their effect either results in propagation or inhibition of the signal (message).
Imagine your local post man with an important surprising mail/message sent to you, now imagine the post-man trying to deliver it to you, this route from the post office to your mail-box is the neuron pathway (or the combination of neurons that are linked ) and the delivery of the message is equal to the effect that the specific neurons being excited has on the body (Anger, Anxiety, Motivation, etc..).
Now imagine that along the way the post man gets tired, so he takes energy shots, those energy shots allow him to continue his work to deliver the message, those energy shots are the excitatory neurotransmitters that allow for the propagation of the message, now imagine that the mail-man is facing people who would like to talk with him about lost packages or complain that he is not arriving on time, those people would be inhibitory neurotransmitters that ultimately act to inhibit the propagation of the message or the letter to your mailbox, resulting in you not reacting (being surprised) to the message you never received.
Note that the comparison must be taken in its context, the inhibition of certain neurons may be compared to inhibition of messages, however this inhibition is not inherently a negative one as the name (or previous mail to your mailbox metaphor) may imply. Some neurons, if excited are excited to propagate a chemical message that causes anger, anxiety, depression, therefore inhibitory neurotransmitters are sometimes beneficial for the inhibition of such a neuronal pathway guided by a specific neurotransmitter system .
Excitatory neurotransmitters: These types of neurotransmitters generally have excitatory effects on the neuron; they increase the likelihood that the neuron will fire a signal. Some of the major excitatory neurotransmitters include epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Inhibitory neurotransmitters: These types of neurotransmitters generally have inhibitory effects on the neuron; they decrease the likelihood that the neuron will fire an action potential. Some of the major inhibitory neurotransmitters include serotonin and GABA
In conclusion, neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow for propagation or inhibition of messages between neurons, ultimately functioning as regulatory agents in exciting or inhibiting a certain bodily function (Anxiety, Anger, Depression).
This is a great segue for the next topic, so how does serotonin function to benefit us?
What is serotonin’s job as a brain neurotransmitter? It regulates signal propagation of different neuronal pathways. Think of it like a volume control on a stereo that controls volume, bass, treble and other sound settings/functions. Serotonin regulates different physiological functions depending on which receptor in a specific neuronal pathway it binds to. Serotonin binding to a receptor type A in one neuronal pathway can inhibit a message while its binding to a receptor type B in another pathway will result in propagation of a message.
Due to the complexity of the topic we will limit the technical description of how those neuronal pathways ultimately affect mood, sleep and other physiological functions to just saying that the balanced presence of serotonin in the body allows for the cumulative result of propagation of messages that are beneficial to mental and physical wellbeing while inhibiting those that are not.
In Conclusion, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that acts as a messenger in the brain (and has different other bodily functions) to excite or inhibit messages which ultimately cause varied physiological effects. Those physiological effects are related to General mood, Depression, Anxiety, Insomnia, Weight loss, PMS, Chronic headaches, Migraines, and Fibromyalgia.
What is the difference between SSRI’s and 5-HTP?
Both 5-HTP and SSRIs increase the availability of serotonin in the brain, but they work in different modes. SSRIs prevent serotonin from being taken back up into the presynaptic neurons (normally achieved by a process called re-uptake, thus the name SSRI or Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor ). This inhibition of re-uptake of serotonin leaves more of it available in the synapses between neurons. In other words, SSRIs allow the brain to reuse the serotonin that is already there. By contrast, 5-HTP replenishes serotonin levels by biological synthesis of additional serotonin molecules, providing new stores of this necessary neurotransmitter in the brain.
Research Around 5-HTP and Serotonin (4):
Much of the published research on 5-HTP has to do with its use in the treatment of depression. Since the early 1970s up to 1998, at least 15 studies have evaluated the clinical effects of 5-HTP on depression. These are summarized in Table 1. Taken together, these studies examined a total of 511 patients with different types of depression. Of these 511 subjects, 285 (56%) showed significant improvement
while taking 5-HTP.
Preliminary studies indicate that 5-HTP may work as well as certain antidepressant drugs to treat people with mild-to-moderate depression. Like the class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which includes fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft), 5-HTP increases the levels of serotonin in the brain. One study compared the effects of 5-HTP to fluvoxamine (Luvox) in 63 people and found that those who were given 5-HTP did just as well as those who received Luvox. They also had fewer side effects than the Luvox group. However, these studies were too small to say for sure if 5-HTP works. More research is needed.
Research suggests that 5-HTP can improve symptoms of fibromyalgia, including pain, anxiety, morning stiffness, and fatigue. Many people with fibromyalgia have low levels of serotonin, and doctors often prescribe antidepressants. Like antidepressants, 5-HTP raises levels of serotonin in the brain. However, it does not work for all people with fibromyalgia. More studies are needed to understand its effect.
In one study, people who took 5-HTP went to sleep quicker and slept more deeply than those who took a placebo. Researchers recommend 200 to 400 mg at night to stimulate serotonin, but it may take 6 to 12 weeks to be fully effective.
Migraines and Other Headaches
Antidepressants are sometimes prescribed for migraine headaches. Studies suggest that high doses of 5-HTP may help people with various types of headaches, including migraines. However, the evidence is mixed, with other studies showing no effect.
Dosage and Precautions
Initial dosage for 5-HTP is usually 50 mg three times per day with meals. If the clinical response is inadequate after two weeks, dosage may be increased to 100 mg three times per day. For insomnia, the dosage is usually 100-300 mg before bedtime. Because some patients may experience mild nausea when initiating treatment with 5-HTP, it is advisable to begin with 50 mg doses and titrate upward.
Moreover there are some precautions of taking 5-htp that must be taken in consideration before consuming the supplement , ensure that you do your thorough research and definitely consult your physician if you are already on anti-depressants before taking 5-HTP.
(2) Birdsall, Timothy C. “5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor.” Alternative medicine review: a journal of clinical therapeutic 3.4 (1998): 271-280.:271-80. Review.
(3) Murphy, Dennis L., et al. “Brain serotonin neurotransmission: An overview and update with an emphasis n serotonin subsystem heterogeneity, multiple receptors, interactions with other neurotransmitter systems, and consequent implications for understanding the actions of serotonergic drugs.” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (1998).