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Tryptophan is a naturally occurring amino acid in certain foods. In the human body it acts as a precursor to serotonin, which is then converted in Melatonin. A substitute form, 5-HTP or 5-hydroxytryptophan is a more common and readily available form of Tryptophan.
5-HTP has been shown to be effective in treating depression, fibromyalgia, headaches and insomnia.1
5-HTP is not found in foods to any appreciable extent. For use as a supplement, it is manufactured from the seeds of an African plant (Griffonia simplicifolia).
A typical dosage of 5-HTP is 100 to 300 mg 3 times daily. Once 5-HTP starts to work, it may be possible to reduce the dosage significantly and still maintain good results.
What Is the Scientific Evidence for 5-Hydroxytryptophan?
Several small studies have compared 5-HTP to standard antidepressants. 1 The best one was a 6-week study of 63 people given either 5-HTP (100 mg 3 times daily) or an antidepressant in the Prozac family (fluvoxamine, 50 mg 3 times daily). 2 Researchers found equal benefit between the supplement and the drug. However, 5-HTP caused fewer and less severe side effects.
Migraine and Other Headaches
There is some evidence that 5-HTP may help prevent migraines when taken at a dosage of 400 to 600 mg daily. Lower doses may not be effective.
In a 6-month trial of 124 people, 5-HTP (600 mg daily) proved equally effective as the standard drug methysergide. 3 The most dramatic benefits observed were reductions in the intensity and duration of migraines. Since methysergide has been proven better than placebo for migraine headaches in earlier studies, the study results provide meaningful, although not airtight, evidence that 5-HTP is also effective.
Similarly good results were seen in another comparative study, using a different medication and 5-HTP (at a dose of 400 mg daily). 4 However, in one study, 5-HTP (up to 300 mg daily) was less effective than the drug propranolol. 5 Also, in a study involving children, 5-HTP failed to demonstrate benefit. 6 Other studies that are sometimes quoted as evidence that 5-HTP is effective for migraines actually enrolled adults or children with many different types of headaches (including migraines). 7 Putting all this evidence together, it appears likely that 5-HTP can help people with frequent migraine headaches if taken in sufficient doses, but further research needs to be done. In particular, we need a large double-blind study that compares 5-HTP against placebo over a period of several months.
Finally, an 8-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 65 individuals (mostly women) with tension headaches found that 5-HTP at a dose of 100 mg 3 times daily did not significantly reduce the number of headaches experienced; however, it did reduce participants' need to use other pain-relieving medications. 8
Obesity (Weight Loss)
The drug fenfluramine was one member of the now infamous phen-fen treatment for weight loss . Although very successful, fenfluramine was later associated with damage to the valves of the heart and was removed from the market. Because fenfluramine raises serotonin levels, it seems reasonable to believe that other substances that affect serotonin might also be useful for weight reduction.
Four small double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials examined whether 5-HTP can aid weight loss. The first, a double-blind crossover study, found that use of 5-HTP (at a daily dose of 8 mg per kilogram body weight) reduced caloric intake despite the fact that the 19 participants made no conscious effort to eat less. 9 Participants given placebo consumed about 2,300 calories per day, while those taking 5-HTP ate only 1,800 calories daily. Use of 5-HTP appeared to lead to a significantly enhanced sense of satiety after eating. Over the course of 5 weeks, women taking 5-HTP effortlessly lost more than 3 lbs.
A follow-up study by the same research group enrolled 20 overweight women who were trying to lose weight. 10 Participants received either 5-HTP (900 mg per day) or placebo for two consecutive 6-week periods. During the first period, there was no dietary restriction, while during the second period participants were encouraged to follow a defined diet expected to lead to weight loss.
Participants receiving placebo did not lose weight during either period. However, those receiving 5-HTP lost about 2% of their initial body weight during the no-diet period and an additional 3% while on the diet. Thus, a woman with an initial weight of 170 lbs lost about 3-1/2 lbs after 6 weeks of using 5-HTP without dieting and another 5 lbs while dieting. Once again, participants taking 5-HTP experienced quicker satiety.
Similar benefits were seen in a double-blind study of 14 overweight women given 900 mg of 5-HTP daily. 11 Finally, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 20 overweight individuals with adult-onset diabetes found that use of 5-HTP (750 mg per day) without intentional dieting resulted in about a 4-1/2 lb weight loss over a 2-week period. 12 Use of 5-HTP reduced carbohydrate intake by 75% and fat intake to a lesser extent.
Antidepressants are the primary conventional treatment for fibromyalgia , a little-understood disease characterized by aching, tender muscles, fatigue, and disturbed sleep. One study suggests that 5-HTP may be helpful as well. In this double-blind trial, 50 subjects with fibromyalgia were given either 100 mg of 5-HTP or placebo 3 times daily for a month. 13 Those receiving 5-HTP experienced significant improvements in all symptom categories, including pain, stiffness, sleep patterns, anxiety, and fatigue.
An 8-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study compared 5-HTP and the drug clomipramine in 45 individuals suffering from anxiety disorders. 14 The results showed that 5-HTP was effective, but clomipramine was more effective.
- Byerley WF, Judd LL, Reimherr FW, Grosser BI. 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a review of its antidepressant efficacy and adverse effects. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 7(3):127-37.
- Poldinger W, Calanchini B, Schwarz W. A functional-dimensional approach to depression: Serotonin deficiency as a target syndrome in a comparison of 5-hydroxytryptophan and fluvoxamine. Psychopathology. 1991;24:53-81.
- Titus F, Dávalos A, Alom J, Codina A. 5-Hydroxytryptophan versus methysergide in the prophylaxis of migraine. Randomized clinical trial. Eur Neurol. 25(5):327-9.
- Bono G, Criscuoli M, Martignoni E, Salmon S, Nappi G. Serotonin precursors in migraine prophylaxis. Adv Neurol. 33():357-63.
- Maissen CP, Ludin HP. Comparison of the effect of 5-hydroxytryptophan and propranolol in the interval treatment of migraine [translated from German]. Schweiz Med Wochenschr. 1991;121:1585-1590.
- Santucci M, Cortelli P, Rossi PG, Baruzzi A, Sacquegna T. L-5-hydroxytryptophan versus placebo in childhood migraine prophylaxis: a double-blind crossover study. Cephalalgia. 6(3):155-7.
- De Giorgis G, Miletto R, Iannuccelli M, Camuffo M, Scerni S. Headache in association with sleep disorders in children: a psychodiagnostic evaluation and controlled clinical study--L-5-HTP versus placebo. Drugs Exp Clin Res. 13(7):425-33.
- Ribeiro CAF. L-5-Hydroxytryptophan in the prophylaxis of chronic tension-type headache: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Headache. 2000;40:451-456.
- Ceci F, Cangiano C, Cairella M, Cascino A, Del Ben M, Muscaritoli M, Sibilia L, Rossi Fanelli F. The effects of oral 5-hydroxytryptophan administration on feeding behavior in obese adult female subjects. J Neural Transm. 76(2):109-17.
- Cangiano C, Ceci F, Cascino A, Del Ben M, Laviano A, Muscaritoli M, Antonucci F, Rossi-Fanelli F. Eating behavior and adherence to dietary prescriptions in obese adult subjects treated with 5-hydroxytryptophan. Am J Clin Nutr. 56(5):863-7.
- Cangiano C, Ceci F, Cairella M, Cascino A, Del Ben M, Laviano A, Muscaritoli M, Rossi-Fanelli F. Effects of 5-hydroxytryptophan on eating behavior and adherence to dietary prescriptions in obese adult subjects. Adv Exp Med Biol. 294():591-3.
- Cangiano C, Laviano A, Del Ben M, Preziosa I, Angelico F, Cascino A, Rossi-Fanelli F. Effects of oral 5-hydroxy-tryptophan on energy intake and macronutrient selection in non-insulin dependent diabetic patients. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 22(7):648-54.
- Caruso I, Sarzi Puttini P, Cazzola M, Azzolini V. Double-blind study of 5-hydroxytryptophan versus placebo in the treatment of primary fibromyalgia syndrome. J Int Med Res. 18(3):201-9.
- Kahn RS, Westenberg HG, Verhoeven WM, Gispen-de Wied CC, Kamerbeek WD. Effect of a serotonin precursor and uptake inhibitor in anxiety disorders; a double-blind comparison of 5-hydroxytryptophan, clomipramine and placebo. Int Clin Psychopharmacol. 2(1):33-45.
- T.C. Birdsall, 5-Hydroxytrytophan: A Clinically Effective Serotonin Precursor. Alternative Medicine Review 3:4, 1998