In my world, I am often asked about herbal supplements for sleep. One of the more popular ones I am asked about is 5-HTP. Many people have tried it for emotional issues, and others have tried it for sleep. Here, I do a review of 5-HTP so we can all learn a little more about this fascinating supplement.
Most of us have experienced how emotional distress can lead to restless, sleepless nights and difficult days. Whether it’s a tough break up, a tricky situation at work, or a more prolonged struggle with depression or anxiety, our emotions and stress levels can throw sleep off kilter.
There’s complicated relationship between mood and sleep—depression, anxiety and stress can interfere with healthy sleep, and poor sleep makes us more vulnerable to problems with mood and emotional regulation.
The compound 5-HTP has effects on both sleep and mood, as well as other body functions that impact our health and our ability to feel good during the day and sleep restfully at night. Let’s take a closer look at what this mood-boosting, sleep-promoting compound does in the body, the benefits it may have for sleep, health, and quality of life.
What is 5-HTP?
5-Hydroxytryptophan—commonly known as 5-HTP—is a compound made naturally in the body. 5-HTP is created as a by-product of the amino acid L-tryptophan. Our bodies don’t make L-tryptophan naturally—we absorb this essential amino acid from the foods we eat.
5-HTP is produced as a supplement from the seeds of a plant, Griffonia simplicfolia, which is native to West Africa.
As we age, natural levels of 5-HTP appear to decline.
How does 5-HTP work?
5-HTP helps the body to produce more serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating mood and sleep-wake cycles. Healthy levels of serotonin contribute to a positive mood and outlook and also promote restful sleep. Serotonin also plays an important role in many other of the body’s functions, including digestion, appetite, and pain perception.
Serotonin influences sleep and sleep-wake cycles in many ways, and scientists continue to make discoveries about how this important neurochemical affects our sleeping and waking lives. One important way serotonin affects sleep and bio time is through its relationship with the “sleep hormone” melatonin. Melatonin is made from serotonin in the presence of darkness. (Remember, melatonin production in the body is triggered by darkness and suppressed by exposure to natural and artificial light.) Healthy serotonin levels are essential for maintaining healthy melatonin levels—and both serotonin and melatonin are critical to sleep and a well-functioning bio clock. With its ability to increase serotonin, 5-HTP supports a neurochemical process that can enable high-quality sleep and keep the body’s bio clock in sync.
Because of its serotonin-boosting capability, 5-HTP may also help with other conditions, including mood problems, stress, pain, and appetite control.
Benefits of 5-HTP
Sleep and sleep-wake cycles
Because of its role in creating serotonin, 5-HTP is indirectly involved in producing melatonin, a hormone that is critical for sleep. Melatonin helps the body’s bio clock stay in sync, and regulates daily sleep-wake cycles. A strong bio clock and regular sleep-wake routines are the cornerstone of healthy, restful, rejuvenating sleep. Research suggests that 5-HTP may help shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and increase sleep amounts.
5-HTP can be effective in improving mood, and easing symptoms of stress and anxiousness, which can in turn interfere with sleep.
Research also indicates that 5-HTP may be effective in helping to reduce sleep terrors in children.
Stress, anxiety, and depression
5-HTP has been shown in scientific studies to promote relaxation and alleviate stress and anxiety. The relaxation and anti-anxiety properties of 5-HTP appear to come from its ability to elevate levels of serotonin. Research has demonstrated that 5-HTP may reduce the risks of panic attacks and symptoms of panic, as well as anxiety and emotional stress. Research also indicates 5-HTP may be effective in helping to alleviate depression.
Appetite suppression and weight control
For decades, 5-HTP has been recognized as important to appetite regulation. Higher levels of serotonin are linked to diminished appetite. Keeping serotonin levels from dipping can help keep appetite in check, and may help reduce cravings for carbohydrates. As a serotonin booster, 5-HTP may help to suppress appetite. Research indicates that 5-HTP may be effective in helping people who are overweight or obese lose weight.
Fibromyalgia is a condition that often combines chronic physical pain with sleep problems. Research indicates that 5-HTP can help improve fibromyalgia symptoms, including pain, tenderness, daytime fatigue, sleep quality, and anxiety.
Migraines and headache pain
There’s scientific evidence indicating that 5-HTP may be able to reduce the frequency of migraine headache attacks and reduce pain from chronic headaches.
Other uses for 5-HTP
Because of its direct influence over serotonin and indirect influence over other hormones including melatonin, scientists are investigating the therapeutic potential for 5-HTP for a range of conditions, including:
• Menopausal symptoms
• Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
• Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
• Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
• Parkinson’s disease
• Alzheimer’s disease
• Nervous system disorder
• Ramsey-Hunt syndrome
• Alcohol and drug withdrawal symptoms
5-HTP: what to know
Always consult your doctor before you begin taking a supplement or make any changes to your existing medication and supplement routine. This is not medical advice, but it is information you can use as a conversation-starter with your physician at your next appointment.
The following doses are based on amounts that have been investigated in scientific studies. In general, it is recommended that users begin with the smallest suggested dose, and gradually increase until it has an effect.
A range of doses from 25mg to 500mg and higher has been studied in scientific research, for sleep problems, anxiety, depression, stress, appetite suppression, and other conditions.
Possible side effects of 5-HTP
5-HTP is generally well tolerated by healthy adults. Possible side effects of 5-HTP include stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, heartburn, excessive sleepiness, muscle spasms, and sexual problems.
People with the following conditions should consult with a physician before using a 5-HTP supplement:
• Pregnancy and breast feeding
• Surgery patients (Some surgery medications can affect serotonin. It’s generally recommended that people stop taking 5-HTP at least two weeks ahead of scheduled surgery.)
• Children. Talk with your child’s physician before beginning your child’s use of 5-HTP.
5-HTP has been linked in very rare instances to a condition known as EMS, or eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome, which combines extreme muscle tenderness with abnormalities in the blood. A contaminant that was found in some tryptophan supplements in the late 1980s, and was linked to a small number of EMS cases, was also found in some 5-HTP supplements. It’s important to talk with your doctor before you begin taking 5-HTP or any other supplement, and to make sure you’re getting your supplements from a reliable provider.
The following medications and other supplements may interact with 5-HTP. Effects may include increasing or decreasing sleepiness and drowsiness, interfering with the effectiveness of the medications or supplements, and interfering with the condition that is being treated by the medication or supplement. These are lists of commonly used medications and supplements that have scientifically identified interactions with 5-HTP. People who take these or any other medications and supplements should consult with a physician before beginning to use 5-HTP.
Interactions with medications:
• Carbidopa (used to treat Parkinson’s disease)
• Dextromethorphan (found in cough medicines including Robitussin DM and others)
• Antidepressant medications
• Pain medications (including Demerol, Talwin, Tramadol and others)
• Sedative medications
Interactions with other supplements:
Using 5-HTP in combination with other herbs or supplements that may cause sleepiness or drowsiness may lead to excessive sleepiness. These herbs and supplements include but are not limited to:
• California poppy
• Jamaican dogwood
• St. John’s wort
• Yerba mansa
Using 5-HTP in combination with other herbs or supplements that increase serotonin levels may lead to too-high serotonin levels. These herbs and supplements include but are not limited to:
• Hawaiian baby woodrose
• S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe)
• St. John’s wort
Emotional balance and management of stress levels and mood make an enormous difference to sleep, as well as to performance, quality of life, and overall health. If these issues interfere with your sleep and your daily well being, consider speaking with your doctor about whether 5-HTP might help.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
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