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5-HTP: Check Before You Swallow

A potentially valuable supplement, but still a "drug."


Updated: April 25, 2006

5-HTP diagram
5-HTP is an amino acid produced by the human body from the essential amino acid L-tryptophan (LT), which is found in dietary proteins. It's clinical value is in it's ability to increase production of serotonin, and it has been use clinically for more than 30 years. 5-HTP occurs naturally in two places -- the human body and the seeds of the Griffonia Simplicifolia, a West African medicinal plant. Let's see if I can simplify this a bit: Food that contains LT in the proteins -> 5-HTP -> serotonin.

Why is serotonin so important?
Serotonin (also called 5-hydrotryptophan) is found in the cells of the brain and intestine and in the platelets of our blood. When the walls of blood vessels are damaged, serotonin is released from the platelets to constrict the blood vessel and prevent hemorrhage. In the tissue of the intestine, it acts as a stimulant to make the smooth muscle contract. Most people are probably most familiar with serotonin as it acts in the brain - as a neurotransmitter that aids in the transmission of nerve impulses between synapses. All of these functions make serotonin very important to all of the body's systems. Serotonin deficiency has been implicated in mood disorders, appetite control, premenstrual syndrome, autism, eating disorders, fibromyalgia, appetite control, the pain phase of migraine, and other conditions and disorders. Some serotonin is converted by our pineal gland into melatonin, the hormone that controls our sleep cycle. Thus, serotonin deficiency is also linked to insomnia and other sleep disorders.

Increasing 5-HTP Levels
Since eating foods that contain L-tryptophan won't significantly increase 5-HTP levels, it is processed from the seeds of the Griffonia Simplicifolia and marketed as a dietary supplement. The amounts of 5-HTP recommended vary significantly depending upon the condition being treated.

Why Check Before You Swallow?
There are a couple of factors at work with "headachers" and supplements, including 5-HTP:

  • Sometimes, we're so tired of the pain that we'll "try anything." Haven't we all said or thought that? When we're in pain and overwrought with it, we sometimes take risks that we might not if we were thinking more clearly.
  • Then there's the "It's Natural" factor - "If it's 'natural,' it won't hurt anything." Don't you believe it. Everything interacts with everything else, and it can be good or bad. Stop and think. Stop and get information.

5-HTP should not be taken with Carbidopa, which is used to treat Parkinsons disease; triptans such as Imitrex, Zomig, Maxalt, or Amerge; and some other prescription medications. If you are taking any medications, please check with your doctor or pharmacist before using 5-HTP. An early study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported the possibility that 5-HTP may cause seizures in children with Down's Syndrome. Safety during pregnancy or nursing has not been established, nor has safety for those with kidney or liver disease.  

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a drug as "a substance used in the diagnosis, treatment or prevention of a disease or as a component of a medication." When considering 5-HTP or any "natural" supplement, it is important that we consider that they have the potential to affect our bodies as much as any other drug, particularly if we are taking other prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Since dietary and herbal supplements don't come under the same scrutiny and testing as drugs, there have not been the same studies conducted to prove their effectiveness or their safety. In addition, there have been cases of contaminants in some supplements. For this reason, it is important that any supplement always be purchased from a well known, reputable source. Before you take 5-HTP or any other supplement, consult your physician about the potential for them to interact with any medications you may be taking as well as whether they may be potentially harmful because of any illness you may have.

  1. About.com
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  6. 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan): Check Before You Swallow. A potentially valuable supplement, but still a drug. About Headaches and Migraine

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