Can 5-HTP Supplements Help Anxiety and Depression?

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Last updated September 20, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

5-HTP supplements are taken for anxiety, depression, and insomnia, but the science does not support this. However, there are some potent alternatives.

5-HTP is a very popular supplement promoted as a natural remedy for anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders.

But there are some concerns about 5-HTP’s safety and also doubts as to whether it works as well as we’ve been led to believe.

In this article, we dive deep into the evidence so that you can make an educated decision for yourself.

5-HTP: What Is It? What Is It Good For?

5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is an amino acid that the body naturally manufactures.

It’s not found in food but is created from another amino acid, tryptophan.

Tryptophan is found in high-protein animal foods like meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, and eggs.

5-HTP supplements are usually produced from Griffonia simplicifolia, a woody African shrub.

This plant’s seeds naturally contain around 15% 5-HTP by weight

In the United States, 5-HTP is sold as an over-the-counter supplement for a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, migraines, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and fibromyalgia.

It’s also a popular weight loss aid since it can help reduce appetite.

The reason 5-HTP is potentially useful for so many different disorders is that when it’s ingested, it’s converted into two important “master” brain chemicals, serotonin and melatonin.

" 5-HTP boosts serotonin at the expense of other neurotransmitters, specifically dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.

You can see the pathways connecting tryptophan, 5-HTP, serotonin, and melatonin in the diagram below.

diagram of the tryptophan-serotonin synthesis pathway
The pathway of tryptophan-serotonin synthesis. (Image courtesy of Dr. Katherine Chung)

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known as the “happy molecule” for its role in supporting a positive mood.

This major neurotransmitter also helps regulate learning, memory, appetite, and sleep.

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People deficient in this brain chemical often suffer from depression, anxiety, insomnia, low self-esteem, negative thoughts, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

The most commonly prescribed antidepressant medications, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are believed to work by increasing serotonin levels.

Serotonin is the precursor to the body’s natural sleep hormone, melatonin.

Melatonin controls our circadian rhythm and signals to the body when it’s time to start winding down for sleep.

It’s also a potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory compound, and immune system booster that is especially protective for the brain.

Melatonin also acts as an effective natural antidepressant.

Benefits of 5-HTP: What the Evidence Shows

There’s an abundance of anecdotal reports that 5-HTP can help with anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

You may notice that some websites mention studies in a vague way, e.g., “Many studies prove 5-HTP works better than drugs,” but never link to any actual studies.That’s because there’s little scientific evidence to support 5-HTP’s benefits.

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Here’s a look at what the research actually shows about 5-HTP’s effectiveness for anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

5-HTP for Anxiety

Few studies support the use of 5-HTP for anxiety.

5-HTP was found to be protective against carbon dioxide-induced panic attacks

One study compared 5-HTP and the prescription medication clomipramine for anxiety.

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Clomipramine is a tricyclic antidepressant used for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

5-HTP was found to be somewhat effective in reducing anxiety symptoms but was not as effective as clomipramine.

5-HTP for Depression

5-HTP supplements are heavily marketed as a natural remedy for depression, but there is no compelling evidence to back up that claim. 

Some older studies from the 1970s and 1980s found 5-HTP to be effective for depression, but these were generally of poor quality with “notable flaws.”  

A review of over 100 studies on 5-HTP for depression found that only two met good scientific practices.

Both of those studies suggest that 5-HTP and tryptophan may be more effective than a placebo.

Combined, these studies included only 64 participants — a very small sample.

5-HTP for Insomnia

5-HTP supplements fared better when tested for insomnia.

5-HTP decreased the time required to get to sleep and the number of nighttime awakenings. 

Taking 5-HTP along with GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a relaxing neurotransmitter, reduced the time it took to fall asleep and increased the duration and quality of sleep. 

5-HTP Side Effects, Interactions, and Warnings

A lot of people equate “natural” with “safe,” but this is not necessarily true, especially in the case of 5-HTP.

The reported side effects of 5-HTP are significant.

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Physical side effects include heartburn, heart palpitations, headache, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, drowsiness, sexual problems, and muscle problems.

5-HTP can cause mood changes, including agitation, hallucinations, racing thoughts, and insomnia.

It can make several conditions worse, including ADHD, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, obesity, Parkinson’s, and seasonal affective disorder. 

Some people who have taken 5-HTP have developed a serious health condition called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS).

As with many other medications and supplements, 5-HTP should not be taken by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding since its safety has not been established.

Additionally, it should not be mixed with many drugs and other supplements. 

Ironically, there are literally hundreds of medications that when mixed with 5-HTP increase the risk of depression

Poison.org, the website for the National Capital Poison Center, puts this warning on their website:

“If you suspect an adverse reaction to 5-HTP, are concerned about an overdose, or have a child who might have swallowed some 5-HTP tablets, immediately check the web POISONCONTROL® online tool or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 for help.”

Why You Should Never Take 5-HTP With Antidepressants

Since 5-HTP is often taken for depression, it’s tempting for people taking antidepressants to give it a try.

But we can’t state strongly enough …

DO NOT take 5-HTP and prescription antidepressant medications together.

If you take an antidepressant along with 5-HTP, serotonin levels can get too high

This can cause serious side effects like heart problems and anxiety.

It can even lead to a dangerous condition known as serotonin syndrome.

Signs of serotonin syndrome include high blood pressure, hyperthermia, flushing, twitching, dizziness, and disorientation.

Serotonin syndrome can lead to coma and is potentially fatal.

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Choosing the right brain supplement is all about quality. And, when you buy a 3-month supply, you get 1 extra month free. See why I recommend Mind Lab Pro.

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5-HTP should never be taken with the following antidepressant medications: 

  • fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • paroxetine (Paxil)
  • sertraline (Zoloft)
  • amitriptyline (Elavil)
  • clomipramine (Anafranil)
  • imipramine (Tofranil)
  • phenelzine (Nardil)
  • tranylcypromine (Parnate)

In addition, 5-HTP should not be mixed with anti-anxiety drugs like Ativan or sleeping pills like Ambien.

It should not be taken with over-the-counter cough medicines that contain dextromethorphan, such as Robitussin Nighttime Cough DM.

Additionally, 5-HTP should not be mixed with herbs that are natural relaxants or supplements that work by increasing serotonin levels.

Kava, catnip, hops, and valerian fall into the first group; tryptophan, SAM-e (S-adenosylmethionine), and St. John’s wort fall into the latter.

Note that this is only a partial list.

Drugs.com lists over 90 medications and over-the-counter remedies contraindicated for use with 5-HTP supplementation.

If you take any medications, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about possible interactions before trying 5-HTP.

Meanwhile, you can use one of these reputable online interaction checkers to find out right now if anything you are taking negatively interacts with 5-HTP.

Why 5-HTP Is Not a Long-Term Solution

Another factor to consider is that 5-HTP is not intended for long-term use.

When taken for more than a few months, it often loses its effectiveness.

This is due to a see-saw effect between serotonin and another neurotransmitter.

While 5-HTP boosts serotonin, this happens at the expense of dopamine, which is equally important to mental well-being and positive mood.

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So, prolonged use of 5-HTP could ultimately mean trading one chemical imbalance for another.

5-HTP Dosage

We’ve examined both sides of 5-HTP — its benefits and side effects.

If you still want to give 5-HTP a try, here is some information on its availability and how to take it.

5-HTP is available as an over-the-counter nutritional supplement in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. 

A typical dose of 5-HTP is 150-800 mg daily

It’s best to divide the doses throughout the day to prevent nausea, one of the more common side effects.

If possible, take a time-release version. 

One reason why 5-HTP might not work as expected is due to its short half-life of less than 2 hours. 

Unless you already take vitamin B6, look for a 5-HTP supplement that contains this vitamin.

Vitamin B6 is an essential cofactor that must be present for 5-HTP’s conversion to serotonin.

Natural Alternatives to 5-HTP

5-HTP is definitely not the only way to boost serotonin and melatonin levels to treat depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Here’s a look at some of the other ways to boost these brain chemicals naturally.

Tryptophan: The 5-HTP Precursor

The amino acid tryptophan is the precursor to 5-HTP, making it a logical alternative.

Supplemental tryptophan is superior to 5-HTP in many ways.

Unlike 5-HTP, it has a proven track record for treating depression. 

In fact, studies have found tryptophan to be as effective for depression as antidepressant drugs

It has also proven useful for numerous other conditions, including sleep disorders, chronic pain, bipolar disorder, PMS, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, ADHD, memory loss, OCD, and seasonal affective disorder. 

And unlike 5-HTP which depletes dopamine, tryptophan increases levels of this important brain chemical.

Note that neither 5-HTP nor tryptophan should be taken with prescription antidepressants

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The Paradox of Tryptophan in Food

Tryptophan is commonly found in protein-rich foods like cheese, salmon, meat, poultry, nuts, and seeds.

So you might expect that you could get the tryptophan you need from food, instead of taking a supplement.

But tryptophan is one of the rare cases where supplements work better than food.

Eating tryptophan-rich foods does little to boost serotonin levels in the brain.

It’s estimated that less than 1% of tryptophan from food enters the brain

Paradoxically, the presence of protein inhibits the synthesis of serotonin.

But there’s a simple workaround to increase serotonin with food — eat carbohydrates separately from protein at some of your meals or snacks.

Curcumin

If you are taking 5-HTP for depression, here are some other natural supplements you can try instead.

Curcumin is the active ingredient in the Indian spice turmeric (Curcuma longa).

This compound increases levels of both serotonin and dopamine and has proven to be as effective for depression as Prozac

Arctic Root

Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea) is an adaptogenic herb that increases resilience to stress.

It has virtually no side effects and works faster to reduce depression than antidepressant medications. 

If you have brain fog, trouble concentrating, and low energy along with your depression, it’s an excellent herb to consider.

Miscellaneous Supplements That Increase Serotonin

There’s a slew of supplements that increase serotonin that you can try instead of 5-HTP, including: 

Not all of nature’s antidepressants come in pill form.

Daily exercise, meditation, and exposure to sunshine are important for increasing serotonin and maintaining a positive mood as well. 

Natural Alternatives for Insomnia

Instead of taking 5-HTP for sleep, you can take a melatonin supplement directly.

But what works even better is to encourage your body to create its own melatonin.

The easiest way to boost melatonin levels is to get more natural light exposure during the day and reduce light exposure at night.

The blue light emitted by electronic devices is particularly disruptive to sleep.

Two hours of iPad use before going to bed can reduce melatonin levels by 22%

Tablets and smartphones are even worse than big-screen TVs or computer monitors because they emit shorter wavelength radiation and are held closer to the eyes. 

Here are two things you can do today to minimize blue light exposure while still using your devices in the evening.

Download f.lux® software to your computer.

This free program automatically changes the quality and quantity of light from your computer screen to sync with the time of day.

Get a pair of glasses with blue light-blocking lenses for computer use.

Proven to improve sleep and mood, these lenses block the blue light coming from all electronics.

Besides melatonin, other supplements that have been proven to improve sleep include magnesium, lavender, and lemon balm.

Lavender and lemon balm work especially well when taken together. 

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