5-HTP: Lifting the mood, improving sleep, weight optimization and anxiety reduction

By Dr. Nicole Cain ND, MA

Why 5-HTP is often recommended for depression, anxiety, fatigue, fibromyalgia, insomnia and more.

Have you heard that 5-HTP is an excellent option for lifting the mood, improving sleep, optimizing weight, and reducing anxiety? This is one of my favorite supplements for depression, anxiety, insomnia, weight loss, and energy, and in today’s article you are going to learn: 

What is 5-HTP?

5-HTP, which is short for 5-hydroxytryptophan, is a chemical that helps your brain make serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that sends messages in your brain and body that regulates your mood, sleep, pain, digestion and concentration.

When 5-HTP is too low, your body will be unable to make proper amounts of serotonin, causing too low serotonin.

Symptoms from low serotonin: Depression, anxiety/ panic, sleeping difficulties, agitation, impulsivity, suicidal behavior, weight gain, concentration issues, digestive upset, body pains, headaches as well as issues with cardiac health, immune function, and even bone development.

On the other hand, too much 5-HTP can also be problematic. When there is more 5-HTP, the body may make more Serotonin, and too much serotonin can cause symptoms head to toe.

Symptoms from high serotonin: Agitation, restlessness, fever, heart irregularities, confusion, high blood pressure, dilated pupils, diarrhea, goosebumps, muscle spasms and twitching and even coma. More severe symptoms are found in a condition called Serotonin Syndrome, which is caused by too much serotonin. 

Where does 5-HTP come from?

You can get 5-HTP in three primary ways: 

  1. Your body makes 5-HTP: Your body makes 5HTP by breaking down a chemical called L-Tryptophan (which you’ve probably heard of being found in turkey!). Here’s what the pathway looks like:

    L- Tryptophan → 5-HTP → Serotonin

    As you see, you start with L-Tryptophan, and your body converts that into 5-HTP, which is then made into Serotonin (5-HT).
  2. You can get 5-HTP from foods containing tryptophan (which is a precursor to 5HTP):

    Foods containing tryptophan include: Milk, canned tuna, turkey, chicken, oats, cheese, nuts and seeds.

  3. 5-HTP is also found in supplements: The main source of 5-HTP in over the counter supplements comes from the seed of the Griffonia Simplicifolia plant. 

What are the benefits of 5-HTP?

5-HTP easily crosses the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and can quickly support increases in serotonin levels in your brain. In fact, 5-HTP crosses your BBB while serotonin does not.

There are many benefits of 5-HTP here are just a few:

What are the risks of 5HTP?

While it can be incredibly useful, it is not without its risks, as is the case with all supplements and medications. This is why it is always important to talk with your doctor before starting any new supplement or medical regimen. 

While it is generally quite safe, there are a few potential risk factors to keep in mind if you are considering adding 5-HTP to your regimen:

Your genetics impact how your body processes serotonin and before you add serotonin promoting supplements to your regimen, it will be helpful to have an understanding ahead of time how your genetic tendencies may impact your response to serotonin. 

Depending on your genetics, you may respond very well to serotonin support, or you may have an adverse reaction. Most people’s insurance will cover a genetic test that examines your genes and potential reactions to medications and supplements, the test that I see most commonly being covered is GeneSite. Examples of genes to look out for are: MTHFR, MAO, COMT, and SLC6A4.

Serotonin syndrome is a medical condition caused by too much serotonin. This may occur as a result of too high doses of certain medications (like SSRI or SNRI antidepressants), supplements (like l-tryptophan or 5-HTP), herbs (like St. John’s wort), or illegal drugs (like LSD, ecstasy, or cocaine). 

Symptoms of serotonin syndrome may include: Rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, tremors, spasms, anxiety, panic, restlessness, disorientation, sweating, and even coma and death. 

Supplementing with 5-HTP can reduce levels of other important mood-regulating neurotransmitters, dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine, by a process called competitive inhibition

Here’s how it works:

As you see, one pathway starts with tryptophan, and then makes serotonin. 

The other pathway starts with tyrosine and makes dopamine. 

But both of these pathways need to share an enzyme called AAAD. If you supplement with high doses of 5-HTP, the AAAD enzyme will be used up by the 5-HTP pathway for making serotonin, which means that the L-Dopa pathway can’t make enough dopamine. 

You’ll also notice that dopamine is needed in order to make norepinephrine, which then makes epinephrine. So if that dopamine pathway is not working, you’ll end up with low levels of all three: Dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. 

As a result, people often feel much worse or develop side effects worse after several weeks of taking 5-HTP.

Signs of low dopamine: Lack of joy, low sex drive, depression, constipation, back pain, and fatigue.

Signs of low norepinephrine and epinephrine: Extreme fatigue, slow heart rate, low blood pressure, depression, lethargy, brain fog, low blood sugar, sleeping issues, and anxiety.

How to properly dose 5-HTP

In order to get the best results there are three factors to keep in mind:

  1. Genetics: How does your body produce and process your neurotransmitters
  2. Epigenetics: How is your body actively metabolizing your neurotransmitters
  3. Cofactors: Cofactors is a term that refers to the other ingredients that your body uses in order to make neurotransmitters. As we learned in the previous section, dosing 5-HTP alone can cause depletion of your other mood-regulating neurotransmitters, dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Dosing 5-HTP goes beyond: How much? And you’ll want to be sure to take it with cofactors that will help you get the best outcome possible. 

I created a handout for you, called the 5-HTP Supplementation Blueprint. This explains each of these three steps in more detail. If you’d like access to this blueprint click HERE.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Here are the top three questions about 5HTP that I was recently asked:

Question: “Are these safe to take if you are already on an antidepressant/anxiety medication?” Of course I will direct them to professional advice, but they want to know if there are contraindications.

The risk of taking 5-HTP while also taking an antidepressant is that both aim to increase serotonin in your brain and if not monitored by a doctor may result in something called Serotonin Syndrome. Signs of serotonin syndrome may range from mild anxiety all the way up to severe agitation, restlessness, and can be lethal. So always talk with your doctor before starting a new supplement- especially if you’re already taking medications.

Question: “Can you use 5-htp and tyrosine together?” 

Answer from Dr. Nicole: Hello! Interestingly, yes you can take tyrosine and 5-HTP together. Research has shown that taking 5-HTP alone can cause a worsening of symptoms. There is a protocol called 5-HTP Supplementation Blueprint that involves how and when to use tyrosine with a few other ingredients to optimize neurotransmitter balance, that I teach about in the video above!

Question: “I haven’t taken 5-htp because of its links to heart issues and EMS (eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome). Can you address its safety?”

Answer from Dr. Nicole: Because of the theoretical risk of 5-HTP causing Serotonin Syndrome (which is a risk of all serotonin producing medications and supplements if not dosed properly), which has symptoms that impact the heart, for example rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, 5-HTP should be dosed under the direction of your doctor. There was an article published describing a link between tryptophan (a precursor to 5HTP) and eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS) in 1989 (https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00001918), however it was found that the trytophan was a contaminated batch, “a letter to Nature Medicine reported the presence of an impurity in 6 out of 6 samples of L-5-HTP obtained randomly at health food stores.” Another study was done on this in 2011 and they were only able to find one person who had reported EMS from Tryptophan (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3848710/), however she was taking a handful of OTHER supplements, and they did histology testing and she didn’t actually have EMS. All that being said, I do not see evidence of concern between L-Tryptophan, 5HTP and the heart, however always talk with your trusted doctor before trying any new supplements or medications.

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Whenever considering changing your protocol whether it includes a change of medications, supplements, diet or lifestyle, always speak with your primary care physician first.

Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational free resources, online courses, and membership group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.