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No doubt many nutritional supplements have proven benefits and can promote general health or improve performance and prevent disease. However, there is a huge amount of products with no scientific research to back their effectiveness. Nevertheless, they often carry promising health claims and may mislead consumers. One major category of supplements is targeted for people with depression and anxiety. Recently, 5-HTP supplements, often referred to as the “happy pills” have become very popular as their manufacturers claim they can help alleviate these conditions. In this week’s article, learn about this controversial product, how it is related to mood and happiness and whether it is effective and safe for use.

What is 5-HTP?

5-HTP, short for 5-hydroxytryptophan, is a chemical that the body makes from the dietary amino acid tryptophan which is found in high protein foods such as chicken, beef, fish and dairy products. The body makes 5 HTP form the tryptophan contained in food. It is also produced commercially from the seeds of an African plant (Griffonia simplicifolia). 5-HTP is linked to the brain chemical serotonin, which affects mood, sleep and pain and it is a rather popular supplement for depression and anxiety. 5-HTP is sold over-the-counter in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada as a dietary supplement for use as an antidepressant, appetite suppressant, and sleep aid. 5-HTP in supplement form is typically sold in 50 mg or 100 mg gelatin or vegetarian capsules.

How does it work?

5-Hydroxytryptophan is turned into serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT) with the help of vitamin B6 in a reaction which occurs both in nervous tissue and in the liver. 5-HTP crosses the blood–brain barrier, while 5-HT does not. Excess 5-HTP, especially when administered with Vitamin B6, is thought to be metabolized and excreted. 5-HTP is used in the brain and nervous system for the production of the chemical serotonin. More specifically, 5-HTP increases the production of serotonin.

Serotonin, sometimes referred to as the happiness hormone, can affect sleep, appetite, pain sensation, temperature and sexual behaviour. Since 5-HTP increases the synthesis of serotonin, it is used for several diseases where serotonin is believed to play an important role including depression, insomnia, obesity, and many others. This is the reason why some scientists believe 5-HTP can be used as a treatment for those conditions and others. However, its use for treating these conditions remains debated and more research is needed.

How effective is it?

Some research indicates that 5-HTP supplements can work as antidepressants. Some studies have also shown that it can ease pain, morning stiffness and sleep problems. Moreover, it can be used for migraines and headaches, anxiety, obesity, premenstrual symptoms (PMS), and hyperactivity disorders. However, keep in mind that there is insufficient research to say that 5-HTP is effective in treating any of these conditions. The European Food Safety Agency refused a health claim for 5-HTP that said it “Helps to promote healthy serotonin levels which can enhance mood.” Therefore, even though some companies tried to promote it as the “happy pill” there isn’t enough scientific evidence behind this claim.

The second most popular use for it is to help with insomnia as the nutrient has been shown to promote sleep, and to improve the quality of sleep, by increasing the amount of time people spend in two key sleep stages: deep sleep and REM sleep (the dreaming stage). After dreaming longer, people on 5-HTP have reported feeling more rested and refreshed.

Furthermore, people trying to lose weight or suffering from migraines may benefit from 5-HTP. In one study, overweight women who took the supplement consumed fewer kilo-joules, lose more weight and were more likely to feel full while on a diet than those given a placebo. 5-HTP may also help to relieve severe headaches, including migraines, reducing their frequency, intensity and duration.

The supplement may also increase pain tolerance in those with fibromyalgia, a chronic condition which causes aches and fatigue, in part by helping to relieve any underlying depression. In a recent Italian study of 200 fibromyalgia sufferers, those who took 5-HTP with conventional anti-depressants had less pain than those receiving either 5-HTP or the drugs alone.

Is 5-HTP safe to use?

Tryptophan supplements have been linked to a serious condition known as eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), which results in extreme muscle tenderness and blood abnormalities. However, very high doses of 5-HTP needed to be taken before symptoms appeared and scientists believe that it is unlikely for EMS to have been caused by tryptophan. However, this type of supplement isn’t suitable for everyone; children, pregnant or breastfeeding women and people with Down’s syndrome or liver disease should not take 5-HTP supplements.

Like many supplements, it has not been extensively studied for long-term use, but it is known that it can have major interaction with other medications. Some antidepressant medicines increase serotonin, so taking 5-HTP along with these medicines, can increase serotonin levels too high. The supplements may cause cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, cramps, heartburn, muscle problems and loss of appetite. So, if you are taking any type of medication, first consult your GP before taking 5-HTP.

By Kleio Bathrellou
Associate Nutritionist & Certified Sports Nutritionist

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