The Basics of 5-HTP

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5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5-HTP) is a supplement that can be purchased in most stores that sell vitamins and nutrients, but the question is should you use it?

5-HTP is a precursor to the formation of Serotonin. It is derived from the break down of an amino acid called Tryptophan. This may sound like boring biochemistry, but knowing this will help better understand why 5-HTP may be an option to consider taking.

The Good Side
The main indication to use 5-HTP is to boost serotonin levels. The vast majority of serotonin made in the body is made in the gut (around 90%). While serotonin has several effects in the peripheral nervous system, when we think of serotonin deficiencies in common mood disorders, what we are really talking about is the amount of serotonin in the brain (Central Nervous System or CNS). The common scientific understanding is that serotonin made in the periphery (Peripheral Nervous System) does not cross into the brain (CNS). The brain cannot pool from the body to boost its serotonin levels.

There are several medications dedicated to helping elongate the amount of serotonin in the brain, most of these are known as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). These drugs are designed to help the amount of serotonin you have last longer. However, what if there was a way to bring serotonin from the gut to the brain? Well, that’s exactly what 5-HTP can do! 5-HTP freely crosses the blood brain barrier (the blood brain barrier acts as the world’s most strict border control). In the brain, 5-HTP is able to freely convert into serotonin following a brief enzyme reaction.

Is that the whole picture?

Unfortunately, medicine is not so simple. While 5-HTP can be used to increase serotonin levels, the clinical outcome of reducing depression in patients does not always correlate with 5HTP supplementation.

Why not? Well, the nature of depression itself is quite complicated. While serotonin levels are associated with depression, each person’s serotonin levels in the brain vary, and simply “not having enough serotonin” is a gross oversimplification of depression.

Another issue with why 5-HTP may not give you the results you may be looking for is that boring biochemistry mentioned earlier. Raising 5-HTP in the brain may impede formation of other important neurotransmitters that also help regulate mood. For the super nerdy and inquisitive, that enzyme reaction is the L-aromatic amino acid decarboxylase reaction (AAAD). Also, degradation of serotonin is done through monoamine oxidase (MAO). MAO is quite busy degrading other catecholamines in the brain so too much serotonin boosting can create an imbalance in degrading other neurotransmitters.

Weighing the info…

Weighing everything said, 5-HTP can be an excellent support in cases of depression where serotonin levels are indicated. It may also be useful in other conditions where serotonin levels have been implicated such as…

  • chronic pain

  • fibromyalgia

  • chronic fatigue syndrome

  • and more

Since it is over the counter and can be found in many health stores, you should exercise caution and seek professional advice when using substances that can possibly alter brain chemistry. Also, another really important fact that should be considered is that serotonin is converted into melatonin. Therefore, taking 5-HTP may make you a little more sleepy than usual.


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