Looking for something a little more natural to ease your symptoms of depression? Well, 5-HTP is a plant derived serotonin booster that many people swear eases the symptoms of depression and a host of other serotonin linked conditions.
It’s not without its drawbacks though. There’s a real lack of clinical data to prove that the supplement does what it’s supposed to do and there may be a risk of serious side effects. 5-HTP use has been linked to eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), which is a serious blood and muscle disorder.
Proponents of 5-HTP claim that early production methods introduced a contaminant into the supplements which caused some cases of EMS but that newer methods of production have resolved this issue.
However, because no clinical data exists to prove that 5-HTP is now safe and that the EMS problem has been resolved, experts groups like The National Institute of Health classify 5-HTP as possibly unsafe and do not endorse its use1.
Is it right for you? Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of this natural ‘antidepressant’.
What Is 5-HTP?
5-HTP is the chemical your body requires to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Your body makes 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) from the tryptophan that you consume when you eat foods like potatoes, milk, turkey and many others. 5-HTP, in turn, is transformed in the body into the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical messenger which plays an important role in regulating mood, energy, emotion, food consumption and the experience of pain.
Why Do People Use 5-HTP Supplements?
Consuming 5-HTP supplements results in increased levels of 5-HTP in the body and this can result in more serotonin in the brain. You cannot really increase your 5-HTP levels beyond a very minimal amount by eating foods high in tryptophan but you can increase these levels through the consumption of 5-HTP supplements, which are typically made from the ground-up seeds of a plant called griffonia simplicifolia.2
Since serotonin levels play a role in conditions like depression, anxiety, obesity and fibrolmyalgia, 5-HTP supplements, which increase serotonin levels, are sometimes touted as a more natural treatment option than pharmaceutical drugs.
Effectiveness of 5-HTP as a Treatment for Depression
A quick internet search will bring forth thousands of anecdotal success stories on the use of 5-HTP for the treatment of conditions like depression and anxiety, but clinical experiments have yet to produce overwhelming evidence in support of their use.
A 2001 Cochran Review of existing research on the use of 5-HTP for depression found only 2 studies which met their quality standards for inclusion. Both of these studies compared the effectiveness of 5-HTP as a treatment for depression as compared to a placebo.
Both studies found that 5-HTP worked better than placebo to reduce symptoms of depression – working about as well as standard SSRI antidepressants.
The researchers concluded, however, that because only 2 very small studies demonstrated the supplement’s utility that further research is needed before 5-HTP can really be considered an effective treatment for depression.
Additionally, because 5-HTP is still possibly associated with the potentially fatal eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome and because there is a safe and effective alternative treatment for depression in SSRI antidepressants there is little reason to recommend the use of 5-HTP until more is known about its safely and effectiveness.3
The bottom line from the experts seems to be that though it probably works, there is a safe alternative in SSRIs and since not enough is yet known about the safety of 5-HTP, you’re probably better off avoiding it for now.
Side Effects and Risks
10 people taking 5-HTP supplements have contracted EMS, which is a potentially fatal muscle and blood disorder. No one has yet proven if the EMS is being caused by the 5-HTP, by a contaminant in certain 5-HTP supplements or by something else entirely.4 Due to this uncertainty, many experts do not recommend the use of 5-HTP.
If you use 5-HTP and also take another medication which increases serotonin levels in the brain you are at risk to develop serotonin syndrome, which is a dangerous condition that occurs when the brain is overloaded with serotonin. Do not use 5-HTP concurrently with other medications which increase serotonin levels, such as:
- Many antidepressants
- Dextromethorphan (an ingredient in cough syrups)
- Many others – this is not a complete list and you should talk to your doctor to confirm your eligibility to use 5-HTP before using the supplement
At low to moderate doses other reported side effects tend to be mild. Possible side effects can include:
- Feelings of fullness
Page last updated Feb 16, 2012