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What are 5-HTP and Tryptophan?

23/02/2021 7 MIN. READ Alyssha Bal
23/02/2021 7 MIN. READ Alyssha Bal

At first glance, the term 5-HTP might sound like a special kind of URL or computer scripting language. But it’s actually an important input for running the most vital machine of all: your body.

5-HTP stands for l-5-hydroxytryptophan or 5-hydroxytryptophan (also known as oxitriptan), which is a chemical that your body makes when it consumes foods that contain the essential amino acid tryptophan. Amino acids are building blocks for proteins that the body can’t produce on its own and must be introduced via diet or supplements, yet not all protein-rich foods contain tryptophan. That said, you’ve likely already eaten at least something this week with tryptophan, like chicken, turkey, milk and canned tuna, or even vegan friendly-fare such as pumpkins, potatoes, collard greens, seaweed, turnips and sunflower seeds.

While the chemical 5-HTP on its own isn’t found in foods, supplements can be made from the seed extract of an African plant known as griffonia simplicifolia. (No, that’s not a character from one of J.K. Rowling’s books!) It’s a type of tree shrub that can grow up to three meters tall, with green and pink(ish) pod-like sacks that are the size of your hand and hold black seeds inside. These types of supplements had been banned in the UK for quite some time, but they were reintroduced to the British market in the mid-2000s.

Besides the intriguing biology and tricky regulation, it’s on a chemical level that things get even more interesting for 5-HTP and tryptophan. Once the body consumes 5-HTP supplements or turns tryptophan from food into 5-HTP, it passes the blood-brain barrier and increases the synthesis of serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine), which is one of the body’s key neurotransmitters because it helps stabilise mood and well-being. In the pineal gland, located in the brain behind the thalamus and in front of the cerebellum, serotonin can also be converted to melatonin, aka “the sleep hormone,” because it affects critical functions like sleep.

What can tryptophan and 5-HTP do for the body?

The benefits of 5-HTP and its precursor tryptophan can be many given that they affect your body’s levels of serotonin, melatonin and more. They can have an impact on sleep, hunger, temperature, sexual behavior and pain sensation, and they can play an important role in conditions associated with inadequate levels of serotonin in the brain, such as depression, insomnia and obesity. Let’s look at some of these conditions one-by-one and see what the scientific research has to say about tryptophan and 5-HTP’s exact part in all this.

Possibly helpful for depression

Studies on tryptophan, 5-HTP and depression from the 1970s, including this one from 1978 concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove an antidepressant effect, at least not without the help of interacting depression medications. A study from 2000 came to a more hopeful conclusion, saying that while tryptophan and 5-HTP “might be of therapeutic value, more studies of suitable design and size might lead to more conclusive results. However, the evidence suggests neurotransmitter precursors can be helpful in patients with mild or moderate depression.”

The researchers of a 2002 study also seemed to agree: “Available evidence does suggest these substances are better than placebo at alleviating depression. Further studies are needed to evaluate the efficacy and safety of 5‐HTP and tryptophan before their widespread use can be recommended.” A more comprehensive review from 2012 reflected that “5-HTP in the treatment of depression has languished for years. Intuitively, the potential is extraordinary, but from a practical level efficacy is no better than placebo. In review of the science, effective integration of 5-HTP into a patient management plan is much more complicated than simply giving some 5-HTP in order to have more serotonin throughout the system.”

Better sleep with a little help from GABA

As mentioned, the brain can also convert serotonin into the hormone melatonin. By increasing production in the evening to help you fall asleep and easing down in the morning to help you wake up, melatonin can help you regulate sleep — and 5-HTP can help regulate melatonin to start you off. There are several sleep studies that measure the effects 5-HTP as combined with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the naturally occuring amino acid that serves as the main neurotransmitter responsible for inhibiting or blocking impulses between neurons in the brain. 

In one of these studies, this one on humans published in 2010, researchers found that “an amino acid preparation containing both GABA and 5-hydroxytryptophan reduced time to fall asleep, decreased sleep latency, increased the duration of sleep, and improved quality of sleep.” Yet most of the rest of the available studies on this topic were conducted on animals and insects, for example, this study from 2016 that said “using a GABA/5-HTP mixture modulates subjective nighttime activity, sleep episodes, and total duration of subjective nighttime sleep to a greater extent than single administration of each amino acid, and that this modulation occurs via GABAergic and serotonergic signaling.” 

CBD also seems to have an impact on GABA, binding to the GABA receptors in the body to increase their effects. A combination of GABA and 5-HTP, like what you can find in our CBD Night Capsules with 5-HTP, could help you get a better good night’s sleep too and we also have an additional 10 tips for better sleep with CBD. The benefits of falling asleep easily and staying asleep spill into other aspects of life, such as improved memory, stress resistance, metabolic health and lots more.

Curbing your appetite and weight loss

Some small studies have explored whether or not 5-HTP can help people with obesity because of the hormonal relationship between appetite and losing weight. The scientific theory goes that increased levels of serotonin produced by 5-HTP can help suppress those hunger pangs that can lead to overeating. In a 1998 study on 20 people with diabetes, those who received 5-HTP consumed about 435 calories less per day than those who received the placebo. (Multiply that by seven and that means 3000 calories less per week, or a day and a half to two day’s worth of calories!) Another study from that same year found that overweight non-insulin-using diabetics who received 5-HTP “significantly decreased their daily energy intake, by reducing carbohydrate and fat intake, and reduced their body weight.” 

As for non-diabetics, earlier research from 1989 showed that 5-HTP promoted a lower appetite with “no changes in mood state but promoted typical anorexia-related symptoms, decreased food intake and weight loss during the period of observation.” Another study from 1992 also saw similar results, concluding that “These findings together with the good tolerance observed suggest that 5-HTP may be safely used to treat obesity.” In a more recent study from 2012 on 20 overweight women, researchers found that 5-HTP spray “increases the feeling of satiety associated with a decrease in body mass index (BMI),” which is an important indicator for healthy weight and nutrition.

Can 5-HTP benefit anything else?

There are a few studies that show 5-HTP might help reduce migraine attacks and headache frequency, as well as symptoms of fibromyalgia, like pain, trouble sleeping and fatigue. However, modern science and medicine still doesn’t have a good grasp on how these conditions are caused nor how they work, so it’s difficult to put a finger on what remedies can help treat them.

More research is also needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of 5-HTP for treating anxiety, brain damage and Alzheimer disease, ADHD, issues with female reproductive organs like PMS, PMDD and menopause symptoms, as well as withdrawal from alcohol, heroin, morphine and other opioid drugs. 

What are the side effects of 5-HTP?

The most significant reactions to taking tryptophan and 5-HTP supplements seem to be related to long-term use over many months because of a special relationship that was demonstrated between serotonin and dopamine. Namely, that when 5-HTP is administered alone, it can deplete the body’s supply of dopamine, as well as norepinephrine and epinephrine, and 5-HTP will no longer work. Long-term use of 5-HTP might actually exacerbate conditions that are related to lower levels of these hormones like depression. This is why anyone who currently takes medication for depression should be extra careful and avoid 5-HTP supplements. Too much serotonin can also cause serious side effects like heart problems, shivering and anxiety.

In addition to depression, those currently being treated for other conditions that affect the brain should be especially careful, as medications that already promote serotonin will interact with 5-HTP. Same thing goes if you take any other substances that affect the brain, such as alcohol. Check with your doctor to make sure tryptophan and 5-HTP supplements won’t affect your current medications and habits.

Some people who have taken 5-HTP have developed a serious condition called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) that affects the organs, muscles, blood and skin. Researchers believed that the outbreak of EMS could be related to a contaminant called Peak X that was first found in some tryptophan and 5-HTP products in the late 1980s and could still be in some to this day, which is why you should always consult your healthcare provider before you contemplate taking these types of supplements — including ours!

Other side effects of 5-HTP and tryptophan include drowsiness, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, sexual and muscle problems. There’s not enough information on whether or not 5-HTP is safe to use during pregnancy and breast-feeding, nor if it’s safe enough to administer to children.

How to Dose 5-HTP supplements

It’s recommended that 5-HTP dosage not exceed 750 mg per day, but it can either be divided throughout the day or taken in one fell swoop. Given that 5-HTP can stay in your system from anywhere between roughly 2.5 to 7.5 hours, some prefer taking smaller 50-100 mg doses and spacing them out, whereas others might prefer taking one larger dose before bed with a sip of water.

Our CBD Night Capsules with 5-HTP contain 300 mg of the supplement, along with broad-spectrum CBD, making them a great way to ease into bedtime. Sleep quality in people with sleeping problems can also be improved by supplementing Vitamin D, which is included in our capsules too, along with vitamin B12, which can promote nervous system functioning.

It can take a couple weeks of adding to 5-HTP and tryptophan supplements to your daily regime to see results in your body, sleep and mood. Yet remember that long-term use can lead to important issues with your serotonin and dopamine levels, which is why your doctor needs to know if you’re taking these supplements. Again, regardless of how intriguing 5-HTP and tryptophan might sound, your body is your most precious machine of all and it deserves to be treated with care — and with expertise from doctors who know best.

Dosage:

Take 1 capsule with a sip of water just before bedtime.

  • Easy dosage that’s perfect for all occasions.
  • The recommended daily intake of one capsule per day should not be exceeded.
  • Do not use during pregnancy and lactation.
  • For adults only. Keep out of reach of children.
  • Store in a cool, dry place.
  • THC content is < 0.01% FSA.
  • Maximum daily dose of CBD across all products is 70mg. It should not be exceeded unless indicated by a medical doctor.
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