You’ve probably heard the old adage that eating turkey on Thanksgiving Day will make you sleepy because turkey contains tryptophan. Actually, this is a myth. While turkey does contain tryptophan, it is not enough to make you drowsy and has no more than what is found in most other proteins. Most likely you’ve just overindulged in all of the good food!
Our bodies can’t make tryptophan on their own. It is found through our diet; foods such as cow’s milk, eggs, poultry, nuts and seeds, beans and bananas all contain tryptophan.
5-HTP (Hydroxy-tryptophan) is a chemical byproduct of the protein building block L-tryptophan. It is known as an “essential” amino acid since it must be obtained from food. 5-HTP is found in the seeds of an African plant known as Griffonia Simplicifolia and is harvested and marketed commercially in the form of supplements.
5-HTP is known as the “mood molecule” because it directly affects serotonin levels in the brain and central nervous system. In addition to helping with depression, it also has anti-anxiety properties, and improves sleep. The human body converts 5-HTP into serotonin which regulates these these things. Taken as a supplement, 5-HTP is meant to raise serotonin levels. Some studies have indicated that 5-HTP may be as effective as SSRI drugs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) such as Prozac and Zoloft in treating mild to moderate depression.
In 1991, the Swiss conducted a study on patients with diagnosed clinical depression and split them into two groups. One group was given 150 mg of Fluvoxamine (an SSRI anti-depressant medication marketed under the name Luvox) once per day and the second group was given 100 mg of 5-HTP. After six weeks, both groups showed improvement but the 5-HTP group had a larger percentage of improved patients and the effects of longer term use were greater as more time passed. This did not happen with the group taking the SSRIs.
Another report followed three different studies that were done on the effects of 5-HTP with depression. All three of these studies compared the use of Imipramine (an SSRI marketed as Tofranil) and 5-HTP. All groups in the study showed equal improvement and the conclusion was made that 5-HTP was as effective in treating depression as the drug Imipramine. Additionally, the group taking 5-HTP did not suffer any side effects that the group taking the SSRIs did, such as dry mouth, decreased libido and tremors.
There are some differences between the way that the brain processes SSRIs (anti-depressants) and 5-HTP. Prozac, Zoloft, and Imipramine, along with other drugs increase serotonin in the brain indirectly by blocking its inactivation. In other words, if a person is depressed, their brains are not producing enough serotonin, so by blocking the inactivation, it prevents brain cells from using what serotonin there is, too quickly. Conversely, 5-HTP provides the cells with the necessary components to make MORE serotonin without the side effects.
It is important to note that in the 1970s and 1980s, L-Tryptophan was highly recommended by doctors to help patients with depression and/or sleeping problems. However, in 1989, the FDA banned the use of it in the United States after 5000 people became ill and 30 people actually died after taking the supplement. However, further investigation showed that it was a particular batch made by Japanese manufacturer Showa-Denko that had been contaminated by impurities discovered in that isolated batch. After further research, the product was then made available by prescription in 1991, and then in 2001, it was once again made available to the general public as an over the counter supplement. No such issues have been noted since its reintroduction. It was just a few months after L-Tryptophan and 5-HTP were banned, that Prozac became FDA approved, followed by other SSRIs.
5-HTP has also shown to be an effective natural sleeping aid for those with insomnia. The neurotransmitter serotonin heavily influences sleep cycles. The sleep hormone melatonin is made from serotonin in the presence of darkness. Having an adequate supply of serotonin is critical for maintaining healthy levels of melatonin. Both are crucial to sleep. Because 5-HTP has the ability to increase serotonin levels, which in turn aids with healthy melatonin levels, it supports the processes that enable quality sleep. Additionally, adequate serotonin also eases stress and mood which makes it easier to fall asleep.
While a prescription is not required, it is important when taking 5-HTP to do so under a doctor’s supervision. Because serotonin levels are increased by supplementing 5-HTP, there are drugs (both prescription and over the counter) that can adversely interact.
Potential Major Drug Interactions
– Do not take with any anti-depressant medications that are considered SSRIs; these drugs also effect
serotonin, combining with 5-HTP can raise serotonin to dangerously high levels
– Do not take with any drugs that are considered MAOIs (Monamine Oxidase Inhibitors)
Potential Mild to Moderate Drug Interactions
– Cardidopa (Lodosyn)
– Dextromethorphan (Robitussin DM, and others)
– Meperidine (Demerol)
– Pentazocine (Talwin)
– Tramadol (Ultram)
Do not take if you are or plan to become pregnant. Sufficient studies have not been completed to show whether 5-HTP has any effect on pregnancy or the unborn child.
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