Though I'm by no means an expert, I feel like I'm pretty well-versed when it comes to supplements. My parents have been complete health nuts for as long as I can remember, and the topic (and medical research behind it) was the most commonly discussed subject at the dinner table growing up. Naturally, I became interested too, and as I've gotten older, I've done a lot of my own research—taking guidance from my parents and health professionals' recommendations. (FYI: Never begin any kind of supplement without first discussing it with your go-to physician.) So when I read about 5-HTP a few months ago—a supplement I'd never heard of—I was immediately intrigued.
I discovered 5-HTP while reading The Archetype Diet, a highly personalized approach to eating designed by nutritionist and cognitive behavior specialist Dana James, MS, CNS, CDN. After you take an in-depth quiz to find out which of four archetypes you are, James details a customized lifestyle strategy outlining the best approach to eating, exercising, and supplementing your body in order to reach optimum health. I am a Femme Fatale archetype, and 5-HTP was one of four different supplements James recommended, but I'd never heard of it, unlike the others she suggested (magnesium, digestive enzymes, and a B complex).
In her book, James explains, "5-HTP is the precursor to serotonin, the feel-good transmitter. This can help improve the Femme Fatale's mood and reduce her desire for sweet foods and late-night binging." She goes on to recommend starting with a 50-milligram daily dose right before bed and (as we said earlier) to discuss the supplement with a trusted physician before taking it—especially if you're on an anti-depressant. Curious to find out if 5-HTP could have benefits where my fatigue, anxiety, sleep issues, and cravings were concerned, I discussed the possibility with my GP, who gave me her blessing, and I began taking it. Cutting to the quick, it's worked wonders. Of course, everyone will have different experiences where supplements are concerned, and 5-HTP isn't necessarily a good fit for everyone. (In fact, there is still a lot of scientific debate as to whether or not it's effective in regard to the treatment and management of mood disorders and their side effects.) Curious to know more about the supplement's potential benefits? Keep scrolling.
What Is It, and What Can It Help Treat?
According to the University of Michigan's medical site, 5-HTP (aka 5-hydroxytryptophan, for long) is utilized by our bodies to make serotonin—a pivotal substance when it comes to the health and maintenance of nerve and brain function. The site credits 5-HTP as playing a significant role in "sleep, emotional moods, pain control, inflammation, intestinal peristalsis, and other body functions" and potentially aiding in the treatment of depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, and sleep disturbances, migraines, obesity, sleep disturbances, tension headaches, bipolar disorders, and eating disorders.
Since sleep was my main concern and motivation for investigating 5-HTP, that's where I wanted to focus the majority of my research. Keep reading to see what I found out.
5-HTP and Sleep
You've likely heard of melatonin and the significant role it plays in realtion to sleep. (If not, you can read all about here.) Essentially, however, melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the brain which signals to the body when it's time to fall asleep and wake up. Here's where 5-HTP comes in. According to Psychology Today, due to the role 5-HTP plays in the creation of serotonin, it also becomes indirectly involved in the production of melatonin (as serotonin comes into play in the production of melatonin—still following?).
"Melatonin helps the body’s bio clock stay in sync and regulates daily sleep-wake cycles," the publication reports. "A strong bio clock and regular sleep-wake routines are the cornerstones of healthy, restful, rejuvenating sleep. Research suggests that 5-HTP may help shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and increase sleep amounts." Additionally, the site links 5-HTP with potentially improving mood and symptoms of stress and anxiety (which can, of course, impact the quality of sleep) and may also be an effective way to help children who suffer from sleep terrors."
Potential Side Effects and Stipulations
As with most supplements, however, there are certain side effects and stipulations to consider and to definitely discuss with a health professional. Generally (and fitting with James's initial recommendation), 5-HTP has a range of doses from 25 milligrams to 500 milligrams—all of which have been studied in scientific research, for sleep problems, anxiety, depression, stress, appetite suppression, and other conditions. In general, users should begin with the smallest suggested dose and gradually increase until you notice an effect and while keeping your doctor abreast of any changes in dosage.
It's generally well-tolerated by adults, but as cited by Psychology Today, potential side effects if 5-HTP could include stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, heartburn, excessive sleepiness, muscle spasms, and sexual problems. Pregnant women, surgery patients, and children need particular advisement from a physician before taking. Last but not least, and as we touched on earlier, 5-HTP should not be taken with any neurological drug that has been prescribed for an antidepressant or other cognitive purposes unless cleared by a medical doctor. According to Examine, this is most important for SSRI usage, wherein the combination with 5-HTP can be serious.
After clearing my 50-milligram dosage with my doctor, I began taking 5-HTP nightly, right before bed and after dinner just as James prescribed. I noticed the effect it had almost immediately. I was able to fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and woke up less frequently during the night—a major issue I knew was having an effect on my mood and concentration levels the following day.
Overall, I haven't noticed any kind of negative side effects, except for initially feeling a bit sleepier during the daytime than I was used to. However, this seemed to pass, and after a couple of weeks, I was feeling the major effects of having regular, high-quality sleep (higher energy, less anxiety, and better concentration and mood). I also noticed my crazy cravings (especially for sugar!) has subsided, and I felt far more even-keeled, in general. It was like, for the first time in a long time, I was effectively able to cope with whatever work or life was throwing at me sans debilitating anxiety, stress, or worry. It's also worth noting I was taking Hum Nutrition's Flatter Me Digestive Enzymes ($25) before lunch and dinner, and 300 milligrams of magnesium glycinate before bed alongside my dose of 5-HTP. Again, this was cleared by my GP.
That said, if you're cleared to try out 5-HTP for yourself, we've rounded up a few of the supplements we trust the most. Keep scrolling for our top 5-HTP picks.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be used in the place of advice of your physician or other medical professionals. You should always consult with your doctor or healthcare provider first with any health-related questions. See our full health disclaimer here.