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What is 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)
Very simply 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) – also called oxitriptan – is an amino acid which is made in the body. Amino acids are found in proteins and there are many different amino acids. 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) comes from the tryptophan in protein foods. The tryptophan is converted to 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), which is then changed to serotonin and melatonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger) in the brain,
which gives you a feeling of well-being and happiness. It has a positive
effect on emotions and behavior.
5-HTP is available as a dietary supplement and is not naturally present in foods. You can get tryptophan from food, but not all of it can be efficiently converted into 5-HTP. So you can lose out on the benefits of 5-HTP. In fact 5-HTP is five times as powerful as any tryptophan supplements that you may take.
The importance of 5 HTP
Why is 5-HTP important, you may well ask? It is a source of serotonin, and serotonin levels are very necessary for the proper functioning of the brain, digestive system and general physiological and psychological health.
Low levels of serotonin have been implicated in various ailments like
- Mood disorders
- Eating disorders
- Pre-menstrual syndrome
- Sleep disturbances
- Weight gain
- Pain due to a number of reasons
- Menopausal symptoms
- Panic attacks
What kind of drug is 5-HTP?
5 HTP is a dietary supplement. It is sourced from the seeds of the African tree ‘Griffonia simplicifolia’. It may be available alone or in a combination with other vitamins and herbal preparations. It is an over the counter medication, which you can get at health food stores, in drug stores (in the natural or herbal remedies section) and you can even order it online.
Though it is sold as a natural, alternative or herbal remedy, there is no conclusive research to back it up. The FDA has not approved the drug for many of the ailments it is supposed to help. However, there have been numerous research studies which have been undertaken on various aspects and these studies have shown mixed results.
How does 5-HTP work?
The supplement is digested in the stomach, crosses the blood brain barrier and goes to work in the brain from where it affects the central nervous system. It does this by increasing production of serotonin. This is the same thing than many anti-depressants do, but 5-HTP is more natural than many conventional anti-depressants.
Should you take 5 HTP?
If you are suffering from any of the above disorders and want to try some alternative remedy for them, either because you are not experiencing any relief with conventional drugs or because you believe in natural remedies, you should still check with your primary health care professional. While 5-HTP has shown many promising results it does have many side effects.
And in case you are taking other medicines, it is vitally important to check with your doctor before you start 5-HTP as drug combinations can have serious side effects. Safety in children and pregnant women has not been established, so it is better to avoid this supplement.
5 HTP side effects
Many people who take this supplement report a variety of side effects. Strangely enough many of the side effects are the same as the problems which 5-HTP is supposed to cure. So it may be difficult to tell whether 5-HTP is working or not, unless you feel better if you take 5-HTP.
Among the possible side effects of 5-HTP are nausea and stomach related problems including loss of appetite, diarrhea or constipation and heartburn. Apart from these are side effects like nervousness, insomnia, dry mouth, sweating, dizziness and even headaches. In higher doses this supplement may cause very vivid nightmares. It can lead to erectile dysfunction and loss of libido in men. It can also cause hypertension.
In rare cases there may be allergic reactions, in which case going to the ER is best. If you overdose on 5-HTP, it can lead to heart valve damage. This supplement can possibly cause eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome which results in muscle tenderness and pain, blood abnormalities and myalgia, though it is thought that the syndrome is caused by contaminants in the supplements.
5-hydroxytryptophan (Griffonia simplicifolia)
And if you are on medications for any existing problems, you have to be very careful if you are considering taking 5-HTP. It should not be taken with drugs like
- dextromethorphan which may be present in cough medicine
- St. John’s wort
- amitriptyline (Elavil, Vanatrip, Limbitrol)
- citalopram (Celexa)
- clomipramine (Anafranil)
- doxepin (Sinequan)
- fluoxetine (Prozac)
- imipramine (Tofranil), nortriptyline (Pamelor)
- paroxetine (Paxil)
- sertraline (Zoloft)
- trazodone (Desyrel)
- isocarboxazid (Marplan)
- phenelzine (Nardil)
- rasagiline (Azilect)
- selegiline (Eldepryl, Emsam)
- tranylcypromine (Parnate)
- carbidopa/levodopa (Atamet, Parcopa, Sinemet)
- meperidine (Demerol)
- pentazocine (Talwin)
- tramadol (Ultram, Ultracet)
- dextenfluramine (for weight loss)
- L-dopa (for Parkinson’s)
- Barbiturates and other tranquilizing drugs
- Antihistamines and cold medications
- Alcoholic beverages and narcotic (psychotropic) drugs
- Chemotherapy drugs
Unfortunately, in the case of herbal or natural supplements such as these, testing and research is not rigorous, because these medicines are not subject to the same legal hurdles that conventional drugs have to go through. And yet, just because they are sold as supplements and are supposed to be natural does not mean that they have no side effects and can be taken safely by everybody.
That is why, if you are on medication for any existing condition, it is vitally important that you take your medical practitioner’s permission before you take any other drugs.
How 5-HTP can increase serotonin production
If you are already taking drugs which increase serotonin production – many of the above mentioned drugs fit into that category – and you also start 5-HTP, the serotonin levels in your body can dramatically increase and cause adverse effects. This is particularly true if you take the supplement in high dosages. And you may not even know which drugs that you are already taking have the same effect as 5-HTP.
It is also important not to take 5-HTP for long periods of time, but go for sometime without it. Long term use of 5-HTP may cause even more unwanted side effects which have not been documented as yet.
1. Angst J, Woggon B, Schoepf J. The treatment of depression with L-5-hydroxytryptophan versus imipramine. Results of two open and one double-blind study. Arch Psychiatr Nervenkr. 1977;224:175–186.
2. Attele AS, Xie JT, Yuan CS. Treatment of insomnia: an alternative approach.Altern Med Rev. 2000;5(3):249-259.
3. Birdsall TC. 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor. Altern Med Rev. 1998;3:271–280.
4. Curcio JJ, Kim LS, Wollner D, Pockaj BA. The potential of 5-hydryxtryptophan for hot flash reduction: a hypothesis.Altern Med Rev. 2005;10(3):216-21.
5. Perry NK. Venlafaxine-induced serotonin syndrome with relapse following amitripyline. Postgrad Med J. 2000;76(894):254.
6. Puttini PS, Caruso I. Primary fibromyalgia and 5-hydroxy-L-tryptophan: a 90-day open study. J Int Med Res. 1992;20:182–189.
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