5-HTP is 5-Hydroxytryptophan, and amino acid and a precursor of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter. 5-HTP can pass from the blood to the brain and allow it to synthesis serotonin and it is thought to work synergistically with some nutritional supplements to support the way we feel, otherwise called mood. It is also thought to promote a healthy sleep cycle since serotonin itself takes part in the processes that regulate mood, sleep and also control of appetite.
A typical healthy diet does not contain significant sources of 5-hydroxytryptophan. Instead, it is manufactured by the body’s biochemistry from l-tryptophan that is found in most proteins. Hence it is available from read meats, cheese, poultry and seafood. Most is available from beef and cheese and vegetarians and vegans rely on avocados, peanuts and cashews for their l-tryptophan. Even so, these sources of tryptophan do not lead to the production of large amounts of 5-HTP by the body and a supplement is indicated when natural levels have to be increased, not only in the case of vegans but for all of us.
The major natural source of this important amino acid is the plant Griffonia simplicifolia. Native to Central and West Africa, this is a climbing shrub and its seeds are an important source of supplemental 5-HTP. So the biochemical pathway to serotonin is from 5-HTP that is taken as a supplement or synthesized from l-tryptophan.
The reason that serotonin is so important is in its variously different functions within the body. It is found not only in the brain, but also in the intestines and in the blood. When you get cut, or the blood vessels get damaged, then serotonin is released by the platelets in the blood and acts by constricting the blood vessel, and so preventing or reducing blood loss. It also controls the action of the muscles in the cardiovascular system and intestines ensuring that they function smoothly by stimulating their contraction.
However, it is for its effect on the brain that serotonin is best known. It is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for the transmission of electrical signals across the synapses, the small gaps that separate neurons. If these misfire then a whole range of neurological malfunctions can occur, including sleeplessness, autism, appetite loss, migraines, mood disorders and eating disorders. Serotonin is therefore a critical component of the brain and so, therefore, is 5-HTP, from which it is made.
The biochemical pathway involves the formation of 5-HTP from l-tryptophan by means of the enzyme tryptophan hydroxylase, and another enzyme converts the 5-HTP to serotonin. The serotonin can then be converted to melatonin by means of a two step reaction involving two other enzymes. Incidentally, not all of the tryptophan is converted to serotonin since it is also used to manufacture niacin, Vitamin B3 by means of another biochemical pathway and different enzymes.
Melatonin is the hormone that controls sleep patterns, and synthesized in the pineal gland deep in the brain. It would therefore seem sensible to take supplements of melatonin directly in order to promote sleep, but this seems to be effective only where the patient’s melatonin levels are low. A melatonin supplement is not nearly as effective as a supplement of 5-HTP. Tryptophan is effective in improving sleep levels and decreasing the number of times insomniacs awaken during the night, but this is a prescription drug.
5-HTP is not, and can be purchased at any health store. It is a very effective substitute for tryptophan and a daily dosage of 50 mg – 100 mg taken with fruit juice has a significant sedative effect on children and insomniac adults. All these facts have been established in double blind studies where neither the patients nor those carrying out the studies have known who received the drug or supplement and who were given a placebo.
Apart from its effect on sleep, 5-HTP supplements improve mood and help depression, PMS, anxiety and migraines, and also help overweight people by acting as an appetite suppressant. Insomnia can be caused by a number of factors, among them anxiety and depression, and serotonin can help to control these conditions. Melatonin secretion appears to be promoted by Vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin) and B12 deficiency is common, especially among the elderly and in vegans, since there is no effective vegetable source. A vitamin B12 supplement might also help sleeplessness by improving the secretion of melatonin once biosynthesized.
However, although the supplement is a natural product, keep in mind that it is a mood-changing chemical and can interact with other drugs. Examples of known interferences are with triptans used in treating migraines, and Carbidopa that is used in the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease. It is important that if you are on any other medication you check with your doctor that a 5-HTP supplement is safe for you to take. It has not yet been tested for safety during pregnancy and nursing and there is a possibility that it could be the cause of seizures in Down’s Syndrome children, though that has still to be established.
To sum up, then, 5-HTP is not contained to any extent in a normal diet, but is manufactured from the body’s diet of proteins that contain its precursor, l-tryptophan. In the event of a 5-HTP deficiency, there is insufficient biochemical production of it from natural sources of l-tryptophan to make up for any shortage, and so supplements are required.
5-HTP supplements are indicated in the event of insomnia or disturbed sleep patterns and where mood and appetite have to be regulated. It is also used to alleviate the symptoms of melatonin deficiency such as depression, anxiety and tension, and in such cases 5-HTP, being a natural over-the-counter supplement, is preferred to the prescription drug tryptophan. Recently l-tryptophan has come back on the market as an Over the counter supplement available in health food stores. Melatonin supplements are effective only where there is a definite reduction in the patient’s natural level, and 5-HTP is more effective where a general increase in melatonin is needed.
5-HTP is a natural and safe remedy for sleeplessness, but you must check with your doctor if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you are taking any other medication.