5HTP – Mother Nature’s Prozac, yet so much more…
Tired, stressed, agitated or even depressed. Unfortunately all of these conditions seem to go hand in hand with the lives that we live these days and can manifest themselves in significant physical as well as mental symptoms. For some, help comes in the form of medication such as Prozac, but others seek a more natural remedy when they need to get their lives back on track. If this is you, then 5HTP could be the answer.
5HTP, or to give it its full name, ‘5-Hydroxytryptophan’, is an amino acid that’s a crucial building block in the formation of the neurotransmitter serotonin. It’s this fact that makes 5HTP so important in terms of the treatment of depression and alleviating the harmful side-effects of worry and stress. Low serotonin levels are directly associated with these conditions and, by increasing serotonin levels, many of the symptoms of stress and depression can be overcome.
Before we look at 5HTP and see how it works to help increase serotonin levels, it’s useful to understand a little about serotonin and the role that it plays in relation to depression and stress.
What are Neurotransmitters
As mentioned above, serotonin (also called 5-Hydroxytryptamine (5-HT)) is a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are small chemical molecules whose function is to transmit nerve signals (impulses) from one nerve cell (neuron) to another. They act a bit like a messenger service in the brain. Nerve impulses always flow in the one direction - from the branched extensions of a neuron called dendrites down to its pre-synaptic terminal. The “join” between the pre-synaptic terminal of one neuron and the dendrites of another neuron is called a synapse. Although described as a “join”, neurons do not actually touch each other at a synapse. Instead, the neurons are separated by a minute space known as the synaptic gap. When a nerve impulse arrives at a neuron’s pre-synaptic terminal, it causes the release of neurotransmitters from the terminal. The neurotransmitters cross the synaptic gap to reach the next neuron where they may be accepted at specialized sites on the neuron called post-synaptic receptors.
There are many different neurotransmitters - some trigger the receiving neuron to send an impulse (excitory neurotransmitters) and some stop it from doing so (inhibitory neurotransmitters). The different neurotransmitters have a number of different roles to play – for example the neurotransmitter dopamine performs a number of important functions in the brain, including crucial roles in behaviour and cognition, motor activity, motivation and reward.
What happens when levels of serotonin are low?
As a neurotransmitter, serotonin also has a number of important functions including the regulation of sleep/wake cycles and body temperature. Serotonin also appears to be one of the major players in mood control. It’s very easy to demonstrate the effects of serotonin at work. We all know how good it feels when the weather is sunny or when we eat chocolate – this is serotonin in action. It’s little wonder then that serotonin is sometimes referred to as ‘the brain’s happy chemical’.
In a healthy body, neurotransmitters that have been released to allow communication between neurons are taken back into the transmitting neuron – a process called reuptake. This allows the transmitting neuron to replace its stocks of the released neurotransmitter so that it’s ready to ‘send’ on the next impulse. But when levels of the required neurotransmitter fall too low (which happens with serotonin when someone is depressed) there is not enough of the neurotransmitter available to make re-uptake effective which means that the neuron cannot send on the next impulse.
Exactly how serotonin affects our moods remains an open question. However, what is known is that changes in serotonin levels can quickly alter mood and that if serotonin levels drop too low, depression is almost sure to follow.
Even though the cause of depression varies widely from one person to the next, most people with depression have low serotonin levels. Whether low levels of serotonin cause depression or depression causes serotonin levels to fall is not yet clear but what is certain is that by raising serotonin levels depression can often be lifted. Low serotonin levels are associated with irritability, aggression, impatience and anxiety, and significantly decreased levels in serotonin have been found in suicidal patients.
Stress can easily affect serotonin levels. Stress causes serotonin to be released into the body, and the longer the period of stress the greater the danger of serotonin depletion. Unfortunately, the way we live today means that many of us lead very stressful lives and evidence suggests that low serotonin levels are a common consequence of the dietary and lifestyle practices of modern living.
And not only are low serotonin levels linked to depression, a whole series of other conditions are associated with lowered serotonin levels including:
* Cravings for carbohydrates (sugary and starchy foods)
* Sleep apnea
* Migraine, tension and chronic daily headaches
* Premenstrual syndrome
* Fibromyalgia and muscle aches and pains
How can 5HTP help to increase serotonin levels?
Given that stress affects so many of us in our everyday lives, and given that stress can easily lower serotonin levels which in turn can have dramatic effects on both our physical and mental health, much scientific research has gone into finding ways of returning and keeping serotonin levels healthy.
5HTP is a natural precursor to serotonin – an intermediate step in the body’s process of producing serotonin. The body metabolizes tryptophane, an essential amino acid, into 5HTP. 5HTP is then in turn, converted into serotonin. By providing the body with extra 5HTP serotonin levels can be increased because you are supplying the body with more of the natural building block material that it requires to make serotonin.
5HTP is naturally found in minute amounts in foods like cheese and poultry but the 5HTP that is used as a dietary supplement comes from the seeds of a woody climbing plant called griffonia simplicifolia, a native of west and central Africa. Many of today’s most commonly prescribed anti-depressants such as Prozac also increase the amount of serotonin available to the brain, but, coming from such a source, 5HTP can offer patients a natural alternative.
5HTP is commonly used as a dietary supplement and, as discussed above, increasing serotonin levels can help to alleviate depression and the effects of stress. But not only does increased serotonin help with improving mood and lifting depression, it can also help to overcome the problems listed above such as insomnia and obesity. Indeed many people use 5HTP to help with weight loss as it acts as an appetite suppressant (see below) and with sleep problems because it is an effective sleep aid.
Although relatively new to the United States health food industry, 5HTP has been available as a medicine in several European countries since the 1970s and has been the subject of many scientific research studies.
Although there are a number of different treatments available for depression, some patients unfortunately fail to respond to standard antidepressant drugs. In such circumstances, 5HTP has often been found to help and patients with “therapy resistant” depression have been able to find relief in 5HTP. For example in one study 99 patients who had failed to respond to any previously administered drug therapies received 5HTP in doses varying from 50-600mg daily (average 200mg daily). From the study, 43 patients were seen to have made a complete recovery following 5HTP treatment with another 8 showing significant improvements in their condition – an impressive result when you consider all other standard drug regimes had failed them.
5HTP and weight loss
For those struggling to win the seemingly endless battle to reduce their weight, 5HTP might be the key that they need to make their dieting successful. Serotonin is known to be implicated in hunger and by using 5HTP to increase levels of serotonin, appetite and feelings of hunger can be suppressed. A number of clinical studies have borne out the positive effects that 5HTP can have on weight loss and the common theme is that those trial participants have regularly reported feelings of early satiety. Weight loss inevitably follows - if you feel more full more quickly, then you won’t eat as much, your calorie intake is reduced and you lose weight.
5HTP and insomnia
5HTP is useful sleep aid. One of its main benefits is that 5HTP increases sleep quality. Several clinical studies have shown that 5HTP not only produces good results for insomniacs but that it also promotes and maintains sleep patterns in normal healthy individuals.
How does 5HTP compare with L-tryptophan?
It is inevitable that 5HTP will be compared with L-tryptophan - given that L-tryptophan is also a naturally occurring anti-depressant and that tryptophan is also involved in the production of serotonin. Indeed, the benefits of 5HTP are very similar to those of L-tryptophan.
However, 5HTP has two distinct advantages over L-tryptophan. First and foremost, because 5HTP is one step closer to serotonin than L-tryptophan, it is more effective. Also there have been serious concerns in the past over the safety of L-tryptophan and a severe allergic reaction known as eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS). Contamination during production of L-tryptophan has led to EMS. L-tryptophan is safe if properly prepared, free from any contamination, but its production does require bacterial fermentation - a process that lends itself to contamination. 5HTP, on the other hand, is produced from the seeds of griffonia simplicifolia making it an inherently safer option. Indeed, researchers at NIH (the National Institute of Health - one of the foremost research organisations in the US) have failed to observe a single case of EMS linked to 5HTP.
So when you are suffering from stress or you are depressed, and you want a natural alternative to the usual medications that you’ll be offered - or such standard treatments have proven to be ineffectual - 5HTP maybe just what are you are looking for.
A normal daily dose is 50mg to 100mg (maximum 200mg).
Side effects are rare but may include mania, anxiety, and dermatitis. Very high doses of 5HTP must be avoided to avoid serotonin crossing into the bloodstream because of the effects of serotonin on the heart. To prevent serotonin crossing into the bloodstream, it is not uncommon for 5HTP to be prescribed with carbidopa. Carbidopa stops the conversion of 5HTP into serotonin until it reaches the brain.
Not to be used with other serotonin enhancing drugs, such as L-Tryptophan and Prozac, without your physician's guidance.
The serotonin precursor
Pack Size: 60x 50mg capsules
Description: 5HTP or 5-hydroxy-tryptophan, is the precursor to serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with well being. 5HTP increases serotonin levels and is used to relieve stress, improve sleep or enhance a dieting program.
Directions: Take 1 or 2 capsules a day, or before bedtime. Do not exceed 200mg daily and do not take with other antidepressants.
Supplement facts: Amount per capsule 50mg % Daily Value * not established
Other ingredients: Rice flour in a gelatine capsule.
Disclaimer: This product and its statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to treat, cure or prevent any disease.