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5 HTP Tryptophan Side Effect & Benefit

L-Tryptophan 5 HTP (5 hydroxytryptophan)

Tryptophan (5HTP) is an essential amino acid that is found in a variety of high protein foods. Tryptophan supplements were banned in the United States in 1990 after contaminated supplements were linked to an outbreak of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), a rare and sometimes fatal muscle disorder. Later it was discovered that the tainted supplements were produced by a single Japanese company.

However, tryptophan was known to be associated with significant health risks years before this incident occurred. Now, in response to the banning of tryptophan, a chemical cousin called 5 HTP (5 hydroxytryptophan) is available in supplement form and is touted for much the same reasons that the original tryptophan was.

5 HTP (5 hydroxytryptophan) is a derivative of tryptophan - the body makes 5HTP in the brain from the tryptophan we get from food. The 5HTP used in supplements comes from the seeds of an African plant (Griffonia simplicifolia). In our bodies, 5 HTP quickly becomes serotonin, a neurotransmitter (a chemical that carries messages to and from the brain) that affects sleep cycles, appetite, and mood. Extra tryptophan in our diets leads to extra serotonin in our brains, which is why the supplements are touted as a sleep aid and mood-lifter, among other things.

Benefit of 5 HTP & Depression

In the 1980s several European studies found that 5HTP decreased depression in some people, although apparently no more so than traditional antidepressant medications. However, the 5 HTP supplement may work more quickly than antidepressants and produce fewer side effects. The typical dose of 5 HTP for depression treatment is 150 to 300 milligrams per day.

5 HTP - Sleep and Insomnia

The primary use of 5HTP supplements (and the original tryptophan supplements) is to promote sleep. In Europe 5 HTP has been prescribed by doctors for insomnia for years. There's really no controversy over the effectiveness of tryptophan and 5 HTP at inducing sleep. The mechanism for the effect is well understood and actually quite simple.

Dietary tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids for entry into the brain after a high-protein meal is consumed. However, after a high-carbohydrate meal is eaten, insulin causes the competing amino acids to enter the muscles, allowing a greater proportion of the tryptophan to enter the brain and be converted to serotonin. This is why meals that are heavy on carbohydrates (and tryptophan-containing foods) cause us to feel drowsy and high protein meals do not.

5HTP has also been shown to improve the quality of sleep by increasing the amount of time spent in deep sleep and REM sleep (dream sleep). Getting extra tryptophan through 5 HTP supplements can be an effective way to produce more serotonin-and get some shuteye.

Preliminary research suggests that 5 HTP may be able to ease migraine headaches, decrease the pain of fibrornyalgia (tenderness and pain in the muscles and joints), inhibit anxiety, and curb overeating. However, it's much too early to recommend the supplement for these uses.

L-Tryptophan Food Source & 5HTP Supplement

5HTP is obtained through supplements, but tryptophan is found in many protein foods including beef, chicken, fish, and dairy products.

Although the efficacy of 5-HTP (and tryptophan in general) to promote sleep is well established, use of the supplement remains controversial. Adverse reactions to 5-HTP have been documented. In fact, in 1991 one case of EMS - the same illness that affected so many who used the contaminated tryptophan in 1989 - was linked with 5-HTP. And, in 1998 the FDA confirmed that the same impurity that was present in the banned tryptophan supplements was also found in 5-HTP supplements. This impurity, known as "Peak X", was identified in the 1991 EMS case, and similar impurities were implicated in the 1989 outbreak.

Although the exact cause of the EMS in all of these cases isn't clear (FDA did not blame it directly on "Peak X"), the fact that this impurity has now also turned up in 5-HTP supplements is definitely cause for concern. FDA is continuing to monitor the supplement and encourages consumers and medical professionals to report any adverse reactions to 5-HTP to the MedWatch program.

L Tryptophan 5 HTP Side Effects

Aside from the risk of consuming impure 5HTP, the supplement can cause side effects, though most are generally mild. 5 HTP side effects include:

  • nausea
  • constipation
  • intestinal gas
  • reduced sex drive
  • headaches


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