5-HTP, short for 5-hydroxytryptophan, is a chemical that the body makes from the dietary amino acid tryptophan. 5-HTP is linked to the brain chemical serotonin, which affects mood, sleep and pain. It can be taken as a supplement.
How does 5-HTP work?
5-HTP is used in the production of the chemical serotonin in the brain and nervous system. Some people believe it can be used to help treat conditions affected by serotonin, such as depression, insomnia, obesity and other conditions. However, its use for treating these conditions remains debated and more research is needed.
Eating more foods with tryptophan does not increase the amount of 5-HTP in the body. However, 5-HTP produced commercially from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia, a type of African plant, can be taken as a supplement.
How can 5-HTP help?
Some research indicates that 5-HTP supplements can help relieve depression in a similar way to some antidepressants. Some studies have also shown that 5-HTP can ease pain, morning stiffness and sleep problems associated with fibromyalgia symptoms.
Other conditions that people have used 5-HTP for include:
However, there is insufficient research to say that 5-HTP is effective in treating any of these conditions. The European Food Safety Agency refused a health claim for 5-HTP that said it "Helps to promote healthy serotonin levels which can enhance mood."
Is 5-HTP safe to use?
Tryptophan supplements have been linked to a serious condition known as eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), which results in extreme muscle tenderness and blood abnormalities. It first occurred in 1989 in the US, when more than 1,500 people were affected and over 30 people died. Cases were also reported in Canada and Europe, with 11 cases occurring in the UK. In the same year a contaminate known as Peak X was found in tryptophan supplements, and the same contaminate has been found in some 5-HTP supplements. However, very high does of 5-HTP needed to be taken before symptoms appeared.
The Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) provides independent advice to the Foods Standards Agency. In a statement in 2004 on EMS and L-tryptophan supplements, their report notes that prior to the 1990 ban on L-tryptophan supplements, in the US up to 8,000mg of L-tryptophan was taken daily, but in the UK it was more typical to take one to two 500mg tablets a day. The statement also points to a study that links the contaminated supplement to one supplier. The committee's evaluation is that it is unlikely for EMS to have been caused by L-tryptophan.
In particular children, people with Down's syndrome or liver disease, and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not take 5-HTP supplements. In one study, 15% of people with Down's syndrome experienced seizures after taking 5-HTP supplements over a long period. If you are taking any type of medication, first consult your GP before taking 5-HTP.