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Exploring the Benefits and Risks of 5-HTP Supplements

5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a chemical compound that has recently gained popularity as a dietary supplement. It is produced from L-tryptophan and is a precursor of serotonin, a key neurotransmitter in the human body responsible for regulating sleep, appetite, and a dozen other functions.

In this article, we explore the benefits and risks of taking 5-HTP supplements and unravel if this supplementation might help with sleep quality or weight loss.

What is 5-HTP?

5-HTP is a chemical complex that the body produces from L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid that can be sourced from food or amino acid supplements. It is a chemical intermediary in the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can be further converted to melatonin. Both molecules play essential roles in the body — they are natural mood enhancers, regulate the sleep-wake cycle (a circadian rhythm), govern cognitive functions, and control appetite.

For commercial purposes, 5-HTP is mainly extracted from natural products, specifically from the seeds of the African plant Griffonia simplicifolia, as chemical synthesis on a large scale is too expensive. 5-HTP can also be found in edible mushrooms or produced using microorganism biosynthesis.

In the body, the amino acid tryptophan, sourced from supplements, protein-rich foods (e.g., turkey, chicken, or eggs), legumes, nuts, or seeds, is converted to 5-HTP by an enzyme called tryptophan hydroxylase, which controls the amount of 5-HTP produced. This step is followed by the conversion of 5-HTP to serotonin by using another enzyme (e.g., L-amino acid decarboxylase).

Potential benefits of 5-HTP

The 5-HTP was first identified and isolated in the mid-20th century, and a few clinical trials and studies examined the effects of 5-HTP supplements on various conditions such as insomnia, depression, or obesity. Research on 5-HTP continues to this day, and here, we focus on findings from the past 10 years to provide more updated information on whether incorporating 5-HTP into the diet can help improve sleep quality or support weight loss.

May improve sleep quality

Since 5-HTP is a precursor of serotonin, several studies have examined its role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle and improving sleep quality. Increased levels of serotonin are particularly important for initiating sleep, as they promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. Moreover, serotonin further converts to melatonin, whose enhanced levels facilitate falling asleep as well as having more and longer restorative sleep phases.

One study assessed the potential relation between supplementation with 5-HTP, gut microbiota composition, and sleep quality. A 12-week, single-blinded, parallel randomized controlled trial was conducted with 30 older adults, where participants received a 100 mg daily 5-HTP supplement. According to the data, consuming the compound might help improve sleep quality by increasing the biosynthesis of serotonin, especially in participants who previously showed poor sleep quality or insomnia. Taking a 5-HTP supplement might have also enhanced the diversity of gut microbiota and the number of SCFA-producing bacteria (‘good’ bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids), which further contribute to sleep quality.

Another research assessed how 5-HTP supplementation affects sleep quality in patients with Parkinson's disease (PD), who also suffer from REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD). This condition is characterized by disturbing dreams and sudden movements occurring during sleep. 18 patients received either 50 mg of 5-HTP or placebo treatment for 4 weeks. The supplementation with 5-HTP resulted in a longer REM sleep but did not reduce the number of movements, suggesting a mild effect of 5-HTP on improving sleep quality.

While recent scientific data shows the potential mild benefits of 5-HTP in improving sleep quality, these studies were tested on either animal models or a small number of participants. More extensive studies with longer treatment duration and a higher number of individuals further corroborate the use of 5-HTP supplements as a sleep aid.

May have an antidepressant effect

Serotonin plays an important role in regulating mood, anxiety, and overall well-being. Its low levels have been associated with depression and other mood disorders. Therefore, some studies have assessed whether the supplementation with 5-HTP, a precursor of this neurotransmitter, might be used as a depression treatment to help improve mental health.

A meta-analysis from 2019 of 7 clinical trials has summarized the effects of 5-HTP on regulating depression. The administered dose of 5-HTP varied between 50 mg and 3,200 mg per day, and the treatment duration ranged from 5 to 52 days. Most of the studies have reported a positive effect of 5-HTP on the course of depression, and better potential remission rates were observed with longer treatment duration.

More recently, one study has evaluated the potential antidepressive effects of 5-HTP using a mouse model. The animals that received 100 mg/kg of 5-HTP showed increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth factor crucial for the survival and development of brain cells (neurons).

Animal studies showed that the administration of 5-HTP may also help restore healthy and diverse gut microbiota in depressed mice. It's known that gut microbiome has a close relationship with depressive symptoms.

It is important to keep in mind that most of the studies were performed with a small number of participants or animal models. Therefore, more evidence is needed to claim the potential antidepressant effect of 5-HTP supplements.

May support weight loss

5-HTP has been studied as a potential appetite suppressor and, therefore, a supplement that might aid weight loss. A previous study performed on 20 female participants with obesity has shown that supplementation with 900 mg of 5-HTP daily resulted in reduced daily total energy and carbohydrate intakes, followed by an over 5% weight loss during the period of 12 weeks. It is worth mentioning that the used dosage was very high, and it is not recommended as it can create an imbalance in serotonin levels over time.

Recently, one study assessed how a daily dosage of 100 mg of 5-HTP might influence indices of body composition in 61 exercise-trained participants. While the study did not report changes in food intake, the group receiving 5-HTP showed a decrease in fat mass, suggesting that daily supplementation with the compound might affect body composition.

There is a very limited number of recent studies that have evaluated the effectiveness of 5-HTP as a supplement for weight loss, and more evidence is needed to draw any conclusions. Therefore, it is important to approach its use for this application with care.

Side effects and risks of 5-HTP

A limited number of studies have investigated the potential side effects of using 5-HTP. One study reported weakness, muscle pain, drowsiness, vertigo, diarrhea, or constipation. However, most of the studies investigating the safety profile of 5-HTP are outdated, and it is worth talking about potential side effects and risks with your medical provider.

Certain individuals must avoid taking 5-HTP. People who take serotonin supplements or antidepressants should be cautious because this supplement also targets serotonin levels and, combined with other medication, might lead to ‘serotonin syndrome’, which is a potentially life-threatening condition caused by excessive levels of serotonin in the brain.

The safety of 5-HTP has not been tested in pregnant individuals. Therefore, it should not be taken while pregnant or breastfeeding.

People who have an upcoming surgery should stop taking 5-HTP at least two weeks prior to avoid complications due to excessive serotonin levels.

Dosage and recommendations for 5-HTP

Many data regarding the efficacy and safety of 5-HTP supplements come from outdated studies. At present, there are no official guidelines from the official institutions or regulatory bodies regarding safe and effective doses. For now, it's thought to be safe to be taken daily for up to one year in doses less than 400 mg.

Moreover, recent studies have tested the potential 5-HTP efficacy only in animal models or small groups of participants. Consulting with a healthcare professional might help you make an informed decision tailored to your health needs.

When to take 5-HTP

No studies or official recommendations specify when it is best to take a 5-HTP supplement. Discuss your individual needs with a medical professional to adjust the dosage and schedule for 5-HTP and to make sure that it does not interfere with other medications or supplements you are currently taking.

How to use 5-HTP safely

When introducing a new supplement, such as 5-HTP, it is always worth consulting with a healthcare provider first to make sure that it is appropriate for you. It is important to take the dosage recommended by healthcare professionals as this might vary depending on the individual’s health condition, targeted disorder, and expected outcomes.

Aim to obtain your 5-HTP supplements from well-known sources. Previous studies have found that commercially available 5-HTP contained three or more ingredients questioning the supplement's safety. Buying supplements from renovated sources will ensure they are free of toxic contaminants or other significant impurities.

Should you take 5-HTP supplements?

It has been over 60 years since 5-HTP was first isolated and discovered. Since then, several studies have assessed its potential benefits in regulating sleep quality, mood disorders, and weight. New research is still emerging, helping to understand the role of this supplement in health and well-being.

If you are considering incorporating 5-HTP into your diet, consult with your healthcare professional to determine if this supplement is right for you and to adjust the dose to fit your lifestyle, health condition, and expected outcomes.

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