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5-HTP Use and Side Effects: A Guide

Celebrated actor and comedian Jim Carrey has revealed in several interviews that he’s struggled with depression for long periods in his life. He told interviewers that he took Prozac for a while. Prozac is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, which means it stops naturally occurring serotonin from being removed from your system and recycled. 

The result is often an elevated mood, and the drug has been used to treat depression for years. However, Carrey found that Prozac didn’t allow him to get to the root of his issues.

He later says that he’s been taking supplements that “create serotonin” like 5-Hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP. This supplement is a popular over-the-counter treatment for several issues. Advocates claim that it can help with mental health issues and that it could even have cognitive-enhancing benefits.

But is it as effective and safe as people say? Learn more about this supplement, and its potentially harmful side effects.

What Is 5-HTP?

5-HTP, or 5-Hydroxytryptophan, is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the brain. It’s also sold over-the-counter as a dietary supplement in the United States and abroad. The substance is said to help treat depression, suppress appetite, and aid in sleep. In Europe, it’s even sold as a medication to treat major depression.

5-HTP is an intermediate chemical that the body metabolizes from a chemical called tryptophan, which is found in a variety of food sources, especially egg whites, Atlantic cod, and soybeans. There’s a common myth that turkey has enough tryptophan in it to make you fall asleep on Thanksgiving. However, though turkey does contain tryptophan, it doesn’t contain much more than other meat sources like chicken, beef, pork chops, and salmon. The sleepiness you feel on Thanksgiving is more likely related to high-caloric intake and the resulting need for your body to rest and digest. However, the idea that tryptophan promotes sleep isn’t off-base.

Tryptophan is metabolized and turns into 5-HTP that becomes serotonin and then turns into melatonin. Melatonin promotes sleep and relaxation. However, when you eat something that’s high in tryptophan or take 5-HTP supplements during the day, it’s not necessarily going to knock you out for a nap. The brain needs darkness to convert serotonin into melatonin. When you’re awake and going about your day, your brain isn’t going to start producing chemicals that put you to sleep.

However, since these supplements can turn into serotonin and stay that way during the day, they may have some other significant effects. Serotonin is one of your brain’s feel-good chemicals that are tied to reward, mood, and motivation. A release of serotonin can have wide-reaching functions in the brain, but it may also be linked to increased cognition, elevated mood, and a release of anxiety.

Why People Use 5-HTP

A lack of serotonin in the brain has been connected to several mental health issues, including depression. If you were to take serotonin directly, or another serotonin precursor like tryptophan, it would have a hard time crossing the blood-brain barrier, which is a border that separates your blood in your circulatory system and your brain. 

Some chemicals can’t pass through this barrier while others pass through freely. 5-HTP happens to be in the latter category. It’s able to pass through the barrier and convert into serotonin with more efficiency than other supplements.

For that reason, people use it to treat depression and as a nootropic drug that’s said to enhance cognitive ability. However, scientific studies into the effectiveness of the supplement for these purposes are generally lacking. It stands to reason that it would help to increase serotonin in the brains of people who are living with a disease that might be coming from a serotonin deficiency. However, one 2012 review of the available studies said, “Intuitively, the potential is extraordinary, but from a practical level efficacy is no better than placebo.”

Mental health issues like depression are complicated problems and, like addiction, require personalized and complex treatment approaches. 5-HTP may be beneficial to some, and a useful complementary treatment to others, which may be why it has such a devoted following of people who advocate for it. 

However, the supplement isn’t a replacement for treatment. If you have been struggling with a mental health problem like depression or anxiety, it’s best to start by speaking to one or more medical or clinical professionals. Ask about 5-HTP as an option, but explore all the possibilities that might work for you with the help of professionals.

Side Effects of 5-HTP

The effects and side-effects of 5-HTP haven’t been thoroughly studied yet. It may be difficult to predict how you might react to the drug; however, most people report mild symptoms. 5-HTP can cause heartburn, stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, sleep disturbances, nightmares, and muscle aches. 

Several studies have investigated the substance’s effects on the heart and found that it doesn’t cause any noticeable cardiovascular effects. Some people also report that they feel tired when taking a high dose of 5-HTP, which may have to do with a potential increase in the production of melatonin.

One study in rats showed that mixing a high dose of 5-HTP with MAOI or SSRI antidepressants leads to a condition called serotonin syndrome, which can be potentially dangerous. Serotonin syndrome can cause tremors, sweating, diarrhea, agitation, and increased body temperature. In severe cases, you may experience seizures and muscle breakdown. If you’re already being treated for depression or other mental health problems, ask your doctor before using 5-HTP.

Is 5-HTP Addictive?

5-HTP isn’t known to be addictive or to cause chemical dependence. The substance is made in your body naturally, and your brain is equipped to remove excessive amounts that would otherwise cause problems in your brain chemistry. However, some people who take moderate doses of the supplement for long periods have reported mild withdrawal symptoms like insomnia or a lack of motivation. It’s possible that your body may take time to adjust to a sudden lack of serotonin in your system. However, these symptoms should be temporary and mild.

It’s also possible for you to develop a psychological addiction to 5-HTP. Like other substances, including marijuana and psychedelics that don’t cause chemical dependence, you may become psychologically dependent on the drug. After a long period of use, stopping can result in psychological symptoms like depression, anxiety, and insomnia. If you feel unpleasant physical or psychological symptoms, ask your doctor if the substances you’ve been taking may be related.  

Seeking Recovery Today

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health problems or a substance use disorder, there is help available. Speak to an addiction treatment specialist at Ocean Breeze Recovery today to learn more about addiction treatment options and how they can help you achieve long-lasting sobriety. 

To hear more about the therapies that can address substance use disorders and underlying issues like mental health problems, call 855-960-5341 at any time. 

Addiction is a serious disease that can be difficult to overcome, but you don’t have to go through it on your own. Take the first steps on your road to recovery today.

Sources

Byerley, W., Judd, L., Reimherr, F., & Grosser, B. (1987, June 01). 5-Hydroxytryptophan: A review of its antidepressant efficacy and adverse effects. Retrieved from https://europepmc.org/abstract/med/3298325

Daneman, R., & Prat, A. (2015, January). The blood-brain barrier. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4292164/

Hinz, M., Stein, A., & Uncini, T. (2012, July 19). 5-HTP efficacy and contraindications. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3415362/

RxList. (n.d.). 5-Htp Effectiveness, Safety, and Drug Interactions on RxList. Retrieved from https://www.rxlist.com/5-htp/supplements.htm

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