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.
Are the purported benefits of 5-HTP more hype than substance?
And are the downsides of 5-HTP worth the risks?
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 your 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 15-20% 5-HTP by weight. (1)
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, 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.
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 your body’s natural sleep hormone, melatonin.
Melatonin controls your circadian rhythm and signals to your 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 of the brain.
Melatonin also acts as an effective natural antidepressant.
Research shows that it can work as well to treat depression as such popular SSRIs as Prozac and Zoloft. (2)
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.
A report published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, a peer-reviewed medical journal, says this about 5-HTP:
“This nutrient has a large and strong following who advocate exaggerated and inaccurate claims relating to its effectiveness in the treatment of depression and a number of other serotonin-related diseases. These assertions are not supported by the science. Under close examination, 5-HTP may be contraindicated for depression in some of the very patients for whom promoters of 5-HTP advocate its use.” (3)
This report also mentions that contraindications also extend to anxiety and attention disorders.
Here’s a look at what the research actually shows about 5-HTP’s effectiveness for anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
5-HTP for Anxiety
Even fewer studies support the use of 5-HTP for anxiety.
5-HTP was found to be protective against carbon dioxide-induced panic attacks. (4)
One study compared 5-HTP and the prescription medication clomipramine for anxiety.
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)
5-HTP for Depression
5-HTP supplements are heavily marketed as a natural remedy for depression.
But there is no compelling evidence that 5-HTP is effective for depression. (6)
A review of over 100 studies on 5-HTP for depression found evidence lacking. (7)
Only two of the studies 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.
More current research concluded that 5-HTP works no better than a placebo. (8)
5-HTP for Insomnia
5-HTP supplements fared a little better for evidence of efficacy for insomnia.
5-HTP decreased the time required to get to sleep and decreased the number of nighttime awakenings. (9)
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. (10)
5-HTP Side Effects, Interactions, and Warnings
A lot of people equate “natural” with “safe,” but this it not necessarily true, especially in the case of 5-HTP.
The reported side effects of 5-HTP are significant.
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Physical 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, aggressiveness, anxiety, euphoria, impaired decision making, irritability, mania, restlessness, and insomnia.
It can make several conditions worse including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, obesity, Parkinson’s, and seasonal affective disorder. (11)
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 or other supplements.
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. (12)
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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According to the US National Institutes of Health, 5-HTP should never be taken with the following antidepressant medications: (13)
- 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; l-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 80 medications and OTC 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 loses its effectiveness.
This is due to a see-saw effect between serotonin and other brain chemicals.
While 5-HTP boosts serotonin, this happens at the expense of other neurotransmitters, specifically dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. (14)
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All of these are all equally important to your mental well-being.
So, prolonged use of 5-HTP will ultimately have you exchanging one brain chemical imbalance for several others.
You’ve seen both sides of 5-HTP — the benefits and the 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. (15)
It’s best to split your doses throughout the day to prevent nausea, one of the more common side effects.
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.
Tryptophan more readily enters the brain than 5-HTP.
Unlike 5-HTP, it has a proven track record for treating depression. (18)
In fact, studies have found tryptophan to be as effective for depression as antidepressant drugs. (19)
It has also proven useful for other mental health conditions including anxiety, ADHD, memory loss, OCD, and seasonal affective disorder. (20)
But keep in mind that, like 5-HTP, tryptophan should not be taken with prescription antidepressants. (21)
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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 foods enters the brain. (22)
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.
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).
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. (25)
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 work by increasing 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. (34)
Natural Alternatives for Insomnia
Instead of taking 5-HTP, you can take a melatonin supplement instead.
But what works even better is to encourage your body to create its own.
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 you go to bed can reduce your melatonin levels by 22%. (35)
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. (36)
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.
Proven to improve sleep and mood, these lenses block the blue light coming from all your 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. (37)
5-HTP for Anxiety and Depression: Take the Next Step
5-HTP is a supplement that’s touted as an effective treatment for anxiety, depression, insomnia, and more.
But studies proving its effectiveness for these conditions are lacking.
While 5-HTP increases serotonin and melatonin initially, it does so at the expense of other equally important neurotransmitters.
It has many side effects and interactions and should never be mixed with prescription antidepressants.
For these reasons, 5-HTP is not the remedy of choice for anxiety or depression.
There are plenty of other options — other supplements and lifestyle changes — that can provide the benefits you’re looking for, without the risks.