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What is 5-HTP?

L-Tryptophan and 5-HTP are amino acids sold as nutritional supplements and are used by the body as precursors for the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-hydroxy-tryptamine). Both 5-HTP and L-Tryptophan have been used by bodybuilders as an amino-acid. Tryptophan is used to help stabilize mood, as a sleep aid, and by some ecstasy and psychedelic users because they are reputed to both increase the effects of substances as well as easing the comedown and helping stabilize mood the day after.


For years people took tryptophan pills to treat insomnia and depression and to improve mood. This amino acid is converted in the brain into serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that affects mood and sleep, among other things. But in 1989 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned all sales of tryptophan because of an outbreak of eosinophilic myalgia syndrome (EMS, a rare disorder that affects the skin, blood, muscles, and organs) among thousands of people taking the pills. At least 30 people died. The epidemic was traced to a bad batch of tryptophan from one Japanese manufacturer, which apparently introduced an impurity when it altered its manufacturing process. Since then 5-HTP, a close relative, has replaced tryptophan in health-food stores and drugstores and on the Internet.

Even though the manufacture of 5-HTP is very different from that of tryptophan, worries about contamination remain. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic have found an impurity known as “peak X” in commercial samples of 5-HTP; the FDA has also spotted impurities. Substances similar to “peak X” were found in the tryptophan involved in the 1989 outbreak of EMS. So far, however, there have been no confirmed cases of the illness from 5-HTP supplements.


5-HTP sold over the counter is extracted from the Griffonia seed. The seeds come from an African tree grown mostly in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. 5-HTP can also be made synthetically in the laboratory. The final product is the same as the one made by the body. Only a small (3 to 7) percent of the griffonia seed is made of 5-HTP, therefore, consuming griffonia seeds is not an efficient way of getting 5-HTP.


Some people who take 5-HTP notice better mood balance, a decrease in appetite, reduced anxiety, better impulse control, and better sleep. How does it work? 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan or 5-hydroxy-l-tryptophan) is a natural supplement that converts in the brain into serotonin. Serotonin is an important brain chemical involved in mood, behaviour, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin is also involved in impulse control. For instance, low serotonin levels may lead to addictive behaviours such as gambling or other habits caused by weak willpower. Serotonin is known as 5-H, or 5-hydroxytryptamine, and is found in many places in the body particularly the brain, gastrointestinal system, and blood cells.
5-HTP is well absorbed from an oral dose, with about 70 percent ending up in the bloodstream. It easily crosses the blood-brain barrier and effectively increases central nervous system synthesis of serotonin.

Medical use

The primary use of 5-HTP is for depression. Several small short-term studies have found that it may be as effective as standard antidepressant drugs. Since standard antidepressants are also used for insomnia and anxiety, 5-HTP has also been suggested as a treatment for those conditions, but there is only very preliminary evidence as yet that it works. Similarly, antidepressant drugs are often used for migraine headaches. Some, but not all, studies suggest that regular use of 5-HTP may help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines, as well as help other types of headaches. Additionally, preliminary evidence suggests that 5-HTP can reduce symptoms of fibromyalgia and perhaps help you lose weight.


Also, L-tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin (and melatonin), but only because it first partly transforms into 5-HTP. Tryptophan is also an amino acid and essential in human nutrition. It is one of the 20 amino acids in the genetic code.


Some studies have used dosages of 300 mg a day for depression, while others consider any 5-HTP dose above 50 mg to 100 mg a high dose. Most 5-HTP products on the market are sold in 50 and 100 mg capsules. Some people do well with 20 to 50 mg, while others may temporarily require 100 mg or more. There is has not been enough research done with 5-HTP to know the ideal dosages and timing. It could make you sleepy, so each person may need to find out for him or herself the lowest dose that works well, and the ideal timing, whether early in the day, midday or evening.

Once 5-HTP starts to work, it may be possible to reduce the dosage significantly and still maintain good results.

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Don't take with Monoamine Oxidase (MAO) inhibitors.
High tryptophan supplementation in pregnant animals has led to reduced litter and increased mortality rates, magnified by protein-rich diet.
Excessive tryptophan levels in the brain can cause perception and mood changes. Remedy this by supplementation of B3 and B6.
Dosages of over 6 grams can cause stress on the liver.

Pregnant women should consult their doctor before taking 5-HTP during pregnancy.


5-HTP side effects from high doses (which could be 70 to 100 mg and greater) include nausea and vomiting, stomach cramps, nightmares, and decreased sex drive. Serotonin has an inhibitory effect on sexual behaviour. Tiredness and sleepiness can occur after several days or weeks of use, which may indicate that a break should be taken from 5-HTP use.


The effects of taking 5-HTP along with a pharmaceutical antidepressant are sometimes difficult to predict. Since the SSRIs, like Prozac, block serotonin reuptake, and 5-HTP converts into serotonin, it is possible that dangerously high levels of serotonin could occur, a condition called serotonin syndrome.
It is difficult to predict the interaction of 5-HTP with lithium, MAO inhibitors, anti-anxiety agents, beta blockers, birth control pills, and other pharmaceutical medicines. Some physicians are using a combination of two or more natural antidepressants such as 5-HTP, St. John's wort, SAM-e, and others. However, the interactions are not fully known and caution is advised. Any such combination should be done under medical supervision.

Erowid gathered notes on combining 5-HTP or tryptophan with other drugs: and some experiences.

Links / Further reading

Tryptophan metabolism in humans
5-HTP honest information by Ray Sahelian, author of 5-HTP: Nature's Serotonin Solution, Mind Boosters


This article is based on the following pages:

Erowids Tryptophan Vault
5-HTP honest information by Ray Sahelian, author of 5-HTP: Nature's Serotonin Solution, Mind Boosters

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