It’s an open secret among functional medicine doctors, but only slowly filtering out to the general public: Supplementing with the naturally occurring amino acid 5-Hydroxytryptophan — 5-HTP for short — may be more effective at lifting depression than taking prescription antidepressants. Even better, 5-HTP doesn’t cause the weight gain that’s the side effect of many antidepressants. In fact, according to a growing body of research, 5-HTP actively contributes to weight loss by dialing down food cravings.
The reason 5-HTP works so well has to do with its effects on serotonin, a brain chemical that has a dramatic impact on mood, sleep and food cravings. According to Aimee Duffy, MD, founder of Carolina Integrative Medicine in Clemson, South Carolina, “When serotonin levels are depleted, sleep disturbances, fatigue and anxiety can result.”
And women are at increased risk of a serotonin shortfall. Research indicates women produce 52% less of the feel-good brain chemical than men. What’s more, estrogen enhances serotonin production, so the hormonal flux women experience, particularly during the menopause transition, can cause levels to dip.
Fortunately, it’s easy to boost serotonin levels. And while there are a number of ways to do so, experts and research are shining a light on the benefits of supplementing with HTP. Here, what you need to know about 5-HTP.
What is 5-HTP?
5-HTP is an amino acid that’s naturally produced in the body and it’s vital for the creation of serotonin. When the body has a serotonin shortage, a 5-HTP supplement, which typically comes from the seeds of an African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia, can help. The supplement can boost serotonin stores — an effect that can have a number of health benefits.
5-HTP can lift blue moods
When many people hear the word serotonin, they think of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the most common type of prescription antidepressants. “As their name implies, they boost levels of serotonin, the brain’s ‘happy neurotransmitter,’ but in about half of people, the medications are just not effective,” says functional medicine pioneer Susan Blum, MD. The solution she recommends instead? A 5-HTP supplement. “5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin, and I often use it for patients who aren’t on antidepressants.”
And with good reason: In one study, 73% of people who supplemented with 5-HTP showed a significant reduction in depressive symptoms after two weeks — making it equally effective as prescription antidepressants.
For mood-boosting perks, Dr. Blum advises taking 50 to 200 mg. of 5-HTP daily. (One option: NOW Foods 5-HTP, 50 mg., iHerb.com). Amy Myers, MD, author of The Autoimmune Solution, is another firm believer in the antidepressant power of 5-HTP: “I use it in my clinic while treating underlying root causes of depression.”
Note: If you’re currently taking antidepressants, talk with your healthcare provider before making any changes.
5-HTP can speed weight loss
Supplementing with 5-HTP can also help you reach your appy weight. “The amino acid is converted directly into serotonin, which blunts physical hunger as well as stress-related urges to eat,” says integrative physician Taz Bhatia, MD, author of Super Woman Rx. Indeed, in a 12-week study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 5-HTP curbed women’s cravings for carbs so effectively, they consumed 42% fewer calories daily and lost four times as much weight as folks who took a placebo. To get the weight loss benefits, Dr. Bhatia advises taking 100 mg. of 5-HTP three times daily, 30 minutes before meals.
5-HTP can improve sleep
The amino acid 5-HTP also increases time spent in restorative sleep by as much as 53%. To get the benefits, psychiatrist Daniel Amen, MD, author of Change Your Brain Every Day (Buy from Amazon, $18.99), suggests supplementing with 50 mg. of 5-HTP 30 minutes before bed. He adds: “You can take up to 300 mg. daily, so if you don’t get results, increase the dose by 50 mg. each night until you find the dose that works for you.”
5-HTP can ease headaches
In a study of 124 people suffering from migraine headaches, 71% of those who were given 5-HTP experienced a significant improvement in the intensity and duration of headaches. They also reported fewer side effects than those taking a prescription migraine medication.
What are the side effects of 5-HTP?
Currently, side effects when taking an 5-HTP supplement include nausea, stomachaches, diarrhea, and vomiting. Scientists recommend not going over 800 milligrams daily for more than six weeks at a time.
How should you take 5-HTP?
5-HTP supplements often come in the form of an oral capsule (Buy on Amazon, $15) and are easy to find online and in natural health stores.
As with any supplement, do your research before making a purchase and talk to your doctor prior to getting started. That extra medical opinion matters!
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.