5-HTP, short for 5-Hydroxytryptophan, is a type of amino acid sold as a dietary supplement to regulate sleep patterns, as an appetite suppressant, and as a mood regulator. Also known as, oxytriptan, 5-HTP is the last metabolic form taken on by l-tryptophan during its synthesis into serotonin. In other words, it is the last step taken by l-tryptophan as it transforms into serotonin. 5-HTP however, is believed to have a faster effect compared to l-tryptophan in curbing appetite, staving off depression and anxiety, and in inducing sleep.
There are very limited dietary sources of 5-HTP. The supplements that are marketed are formulated with the compound produced by extracting it from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia, a plant endemic to the Gold Coast region of Ghana in Africa. These plants are not grown in farms, rather they grow in the wild naturally and the seeds are harvested by hand-picking.
As a serotonin precursor, 5-HTP is essentially an l-tryptophan minus some of the steps it takes as it synthesizes into serotonin. While this may seem to be an advantage for 5-HTP over l-tryptophan supplementation, it can also be a drawback as far as its effectiveness is concerned, as will be discussed more in detail later.
L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid because it cannot be produced by the body. While there are rich dietary sources of l-tryptophan like dairy products, meat, fish, poultry, nuts, and seeds, studies show that some 90% of the population in North America alone is not getting enough l-tryptophan in their diet.
Without a doubt, 5-HTP crosses the blood-brain barrier faster than l-tryptophan and gets synthesized into serotonin also at a faster rate. Apart from the benefits mentioned earlier, 5-HTP also has shown therapeutic value in managing fibromyalgia syndrome, a medical condition characterized by pain and sensitivity to pressure; Friedreich’s ataxia, and obesity due to overeating.
5-HTP’s ability to regulate mood, and alleviate depression and anxiety are its primary contribution to cognitive enhancement. Stable moods and the absence of distracting stimuli, makes for more efficient cognitive processes, and it likewise makes one more focused and motivated. These effects may be enough to consider 5-HTP as a nootropic agent.
While 5-HTP may get to the brain faster than l-tryptohan, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a better supplement. 5-HTP’s conversion into the neurotransmitter serotonin is aided by l-aromatic amino decarboxylase (LAAD), a compound that is present almost everywhere in the body. This means that it 5-HTP gets converted into serotonin before it even gets to the brain and by the time it gets there, only a small portion of 5-HTP will remain. Even if you have serotonin floating all over your body, not only does it get metabolized outside the central nervous system, it also cannot cross the blood-brain barrier.
5-HTP also has its own share of negative side effects such as upset stomach, diarrhea, lightheadedness, dizziness, heartburn, muscle pain, and nausea. Those under the age of 18 are advised not to supplement with it.
- It works faster than l-tryptophan.
- It can regulate moods.
- It can help manage depression and anxiety.
- It helps alleviate sleeplessness and insomnia.
- It aids in weight loss.
- It is not an efficient serotonin precursor supplement.
- It has its own share of negative effects.
- It is not a ‘true’ nootropic.
- It has a lot of drug interactions.
The dosage for 5-HTP supplementation is set at 300 to 500mg daily. Most medical experts however, discourage the supplementation with 5-HTP owing to the dangers posed by its effect as evidenced by some studies. 5-HTP also should not be taken with antidepressants such as MAOIs and SSRIs. It is best that you consult first with your doctor if you are considering 5-HTP supplementation.