What is 5-HTP?

L. Whitaker

The chemical 5-hydroxytrytophan (5-HTP), or oxitriptan, is produced by human brain cells but is also sold in the form of commercially created supplements. As a dietary supplement, it is used for a wide variety of medical and mental disorders, although its safety and effectiveness are not known. This supplement is associated with numerous potential side effects and might produce harmful interactions in combination with certain other drugs or supplements.

5-HTP, or oxitriptan, has been used to treat tension headaches.
5-HTP, or oxitriptan, has been used to treat tension headaches.

As a byproduct of the amino acid L-tryptophan, 5-HTP acts on the brain to increase production of serotonin. It is believed to be significantly more effective at serotonin conversion than L-tryptophan. Commercial preparations that are sold as dietary supplements are derived from the seeds of an African plant named Griffonia simplicifolia.

5-HTP might help alleviate some sleep disorders.
5-HTP might help alleviate some sleep disorders.

Serotonin levels can influence appetite, sleep and pain sensation; thus, 5-HTP has been used to treat a variety of conditions. Although research results have been contradictory or inconclusive, it is thought that this chemical could be beneficial in treating sleep disorders, fibromyalgia, premenstrual syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and binge eating, among other health issues. Oxitriptan also has been studied as a treatment for frequent and severe migraine or tension headaches. As a mood enhancer, 5-HTP can be used to aid in some psychological conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

Medicinally, 5-HTP holds potential for use in reducing psychotic symptoms and mania in schizophrenia and other mental disorders. It sometimes is given to supplement the effects of prescription drugs for seizure disorders and Parkinson's disease. Additionally, it has been investigated as a way to lessen withdrawal symptoms associated with alcoholism.

The effectiveness of 5-HTP has been questioned because of a lack of conclusive research in most areas. In addition, an individual should consult with his or her physician before taking this supplement, because of numerous safety concerns. Prolonged use could lead to seizures in some users. It is not recommended for children and should not be used while pregnant or nursing. Some individuals might experience an allergy to this supplement; symptoms include rash, itching and shortness of breath.

The tendency of serotonin to reduce appetite is why two potential side effects of 5-HTP are weight loss and anorexia. Use of this supplement is sometimes associated with eosinophilia-myalgic syndrome, which involves blood abnormalities and extreme muscle tenderness. Gastrointestinal side effects are also possible, such as heartburn, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, stomach discomfort, bloating or intestinal gas. Potentially negative interactions could occur with prescription drugs, including some antidepressants, or with other supplements such as S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) and St. John's wort.

5-HTP acts on the brain to increase production of serotonin.
5-HTP acts on the brain to increase production of serotonin.

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