A chemical neurotransmitter produced naturally by your body, 5-HTP boosts production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which facilitates messaging between nerve cells, and helps regulate mood, appetite, and cognitive function.
5-HTP also regulates our circadian rhythm by producing melatonin, a sleep-regulating chemical.
5-HTP is converted into the amino acid L-Tryptophan in your body to relax you without interfering with cognitive function.
What is 5-HTP?
The amino acid tryptophan in turkey, chicken, potatoes, sunflower seeds, and other foods is converted to 5-HTP when you eat. 
Tryptophan is then synthesized into the neurotransmitter serotonin. By raising serotonin levels, 5-HTP helps regulate mood, sleep, appetite and anxiety. (Think of how relaxed and sleepy you feel after a big turkey dinner, and you’ll have a basic idea of what 5-HTP does.)
Melatonin, SAMe, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D have mood-regulating properties similar to 5-HTP.  Like melatonin and calcium, 5-HTP is also used to treat insomnia, and it bears similarities to fiber, Vitamin D and zinc for weight loss.
Commercial 5-HTP supplements are manufactured using seeds from the Griffonia simplicifolia, an African plant used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years.
The 5-HTP in seeds from the Griffonia is identical to the 5-HTP produced by your body. It’s available online, from Amazon.com and supplement companies, and in vitamin and health food stores.
An excellent choice for insomnia (for most people) and weight loss (for some people), it may not be the go-to supplement for depression due to producing too much of a good thing serotonin).
Other Names for 5-HTP
5-hydroxytryptophan, Serotonin Precursor, 5-Hydroxy L-Tryptophan
One of the many over-the-counter supplements sold as a natural antidepressant, 5-HTP is much better, long-term, at treating other issues – insomnia, social anxiety, headaches and obesity than depression.
When I take 5-HTP to treat depression, I balance it by using a dopamine-boosting supplement like L-tyrosine.
Taking 5-HTP alone for depression or a sluggish mood depletes dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters, called catecholamines, must be produced in the brain, along with serotonin, to prevent depression from getting worse.
I find 5-HTP is best used for insomnia, due to its serotonin-producing ability. It relaxes you and makes you less anxious in social situations while improving your mood and reducing appetite.
It works fine for awhile, but if you use it consistently (without stacking), it results in serotonin overload. Too much serotonin causes brain fog, depression and lethargy -precisely what you were trying to avoid.
Having too much serotonin in your body is called Serotonin Syndrome, and it may cause hot flashes, mental changes, and even coma.
In 1989, the FDA pulled all Tryptophan-related supplements off the market due to contamination by a substance called Peak X. L-Tryptophan is now back on the market, and GRAS by the FDA (“generally recognized as safe” to use).
There are little-to-no current concerns about the safety of 5-HTP, but it’s important to take it in low to moderate doses and only buy from reputable suppliers. Always read supplement reviews before buying any product.
5-HTP Video Explanation
Noted nutrition and supplement expert Dr. Ray Sahelian, M.D. talks about the benefits of 5-HTP here:
There’s quite a bit of information on 5-HTP on the web. On Depressionblog.com, users share their experiences with 5-HTP as a natural anti-depressant:
“5-HTP has worked great for me. I take 50mg in the morning, and I can feel a difference in my mood as well as my appetite.”
On Myfitnesspal.com reviews are mixed. User darjeff writes,
“I’ve been using 5HTP for years. Never found it suppressed my appetite.”
MFP user sweetjrl writes,
“For a while it seemed my appetite was also suppressed, but the longer I took it, the less and less it seemed to suppress it.”
Benefits and Effects
Taking a 5-HTP supplement may reduce symptoms of depression by increasing serotonin in the brain. A study cited in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment concluded that although 5-HTP has great potential for treating depression, it should be used as part of a more comprehensive supplement or treatment plan instead of being used as the sole treatment.
Another study found 5-HTP was almost as effective as the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac). After two weeks of treatment with 5-HTP, patients began to show improvement equal to that of fluoxetine, and the antidepressant effects continued after six and eight weeks of treatment.
These studies seem to contradict one another, but in actual usage, many factors come into play, such as the amount of 5-HTP you’re using, what for, and how long you take the supplement. Stacking 5-HTP with other nootropics also figure into results.
Insomnia and Sleep Disorders
Once 5-HTP is converted into serotonin, it calms and soothes the body to make sleeping easier. Serotonin may then convert to melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating your circadian rhythm (sleep cycle).
Several studies have shown 5-HTP helps you get to sleep faster, and increases rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep.
Supplemental 5-HTP prompts the production of calming serotonin to ease you into slumber and prevent you from waking up throughout the night. It’s also used to treat “sleep terrors” in children, a condition that causes screaming, intense fear and confusion upon awakening.
Some doctors consider 5-HTP a good supplement for weight loss because it can cross the brain-blood barrier to access serotonin in the brain.
When you have higher serotonin levels, you’ll eat less without even trying. The more serotonin you have, the less likely you are to binge on carbohydrates, such as bread, pizza, pastries and other comfort foods.
How It Works
A by-product of the amino acid L-Tryptophan, 5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin and produces it in the in the brain and central nervous system.
If tryptophan doesn’t convert 5-HTP to serotonin efficiently in your body, it can cause depression, sleeplessness, headaches or other health problems.
When you take a supplement or food that converts to tryptophan in your body, it is broken down to 5-HTP in your liver, enters your bloodstream, and then travels to your brain.
It usually takes about 30 minutes for 5-HTP to take effect. For the best benefits from 5-HTP, you should take it with Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). Vitamin B6 is a cofactor that helps convert 5-HTP to serotonin.
Trying to boost your tryptophan levels by eating more turkey or dairy won’t increase the actual tryptophan in your body, but you can increase serotonin naturally from food if you don’t mix carbohydrates and protein when you eat.
There’s a general rule that it’s better to get amino acids from food than supplements, but L-Trytophan/5-HTP is one of the exceptions.
After taking 5-HTP daily for a few months, you’ll develop a tolerance for it, and it will lose its effectiveness and rob you of dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
If you take 5-HTP for depression, it may cause you to feel more depressed at first until it levels off and stabilizes your mood.
You can use 5-HTP to promote a sense of general well-being or treat a specific problem. You should always start dosing slowly to see how you react to the supplement. For general purposes, take 50 mg one to three times a day
For anti-depressive or anti-anxiety purposes, take 300-500 mg a day. The dose may be taken at once or divided into two doses.
For weight loss purposes, you should take 5-HTP with food at doses of between 50-250 mg a day. The supplement makes you feel fuller, causing you to eat less. It doesn’t reduce hunger. Its other benefits, including better sleep and improved mood, also promote weight loss.
The recommended dosage for insomnia is 200-400 mg before bed to increase serotonin production. It may take six to 12 weeks for the 5-HTP to induce sleep at bedtime.
Lower doses of 5-HTP may be suitable when paired with niacinamide (a type of Vitamin B3) or other supplements.
- Gas and bloating
- Decreased appetite
- Stomach pain
Don’t take 5-HTP if you’re taking SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or MAOIs (Monoamine oxidase inhibitors).
Combining 5-HTP with SSRIs like Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and other prescription anti-depressants may cause serious side effects and even death.
Darvon and over 86 other medications may also interact with 5-HTP. Vitamin B12, fish oil, magnesium citrate and most vitamins and minerals are safe when taken with this supplement.
Rare side effects include sudden, and severe muscle cramping and pain called Eosinophilia myalgia syndrome, which may appear months after first using the product, and asymptomatic eosinophilia, a blood disorder characterized by high levels of white blood cells called eosinophils.
5-HTP and L-Tryptophan
L-Tryptophan is a serotonin precursor like 5-HTP, and the two supplements complement each other if you want to improve your sleep quality and wake up refreshed and energetic in the morning.
Replenish your serotonin by one to three grams of L-Tryptophan and 100 to 500 mg of 5-HTP before going to bed.
5-HTP and Melatonin
Melatonin is sometimes used as a standalone supplement to treat insomnia, but some people feel sleepy without actually falling asleep when using melatonin.
For better results, melatonin is often stacked with a second supplement. The supplement 5-HTP converts serotonin, the neurotransmitter precursor to melatonin, and then into melatonin, taking it along with melatonin increases your chance of a deep, restful sleep.
People interested in lucid dreaming (having more vivid dreams), can also stack melatonin with 5-HTP.
5-HTP, Phenibut, and L-Theanine
This stack is appropriate when you need to remain calm and level-headed for a presentation or job interview, or just fall asleep faster.
Phenibut is an anti-anxiety chemical that binds to GABA receptors to relax you and make you feel more sociable. It is very potent, and as such you shouldn’t use it on a regular basis. Dose 500 mg Add 200 mg of L-Theanine for a subtle counterpoint to “round off” Phenibut’s effect, and complete the stack with 100-200 mg of 5-HTP to boost serotonin and ensure a good night’s sleep.
L-Theanine, an amino acid found in black and green tea, relaxes you and promotes alertness at the same time by altering neurotransmitters in your brain.
It crosses the blood-brain barrier to increase dopamine and GABA production. L-Theanine, both in green tea and supplement form, is used to reduce stress, improve sleep quality, and even reduce the likelihood of many types of cancer.
L-Theanine vs. 5-HTP Comparison
L-Theanine has a few side effects while 5-HTP may cause nausea, diarrhea, bloating or interfere with SSRIs and other medications.
5-HTP doesn’t exhibit any immunity boosting capabilities like L-Theanine.
If you’re looking for a laid-back, calming effect, try L-Theanine. For weight loss and a moderate buzz, use 5-HTP.
S-Adenosyl Methionine, or SAMe, is a chemical found in the body. It’s made from the amino acid methionine, which is found in cheese, turkey, beef, fish, dairy and other foods.
It regulates certain cell functions and breaks down brain chemicals, including serotonin and melatonin.
SAMe vs. 5-HTP Comparison
A study on depression treatments concluded that although SAMe and 5-HTP have some short-term antidepressant effects, there was no indication they would be safe or effective for long-term depression treatment.
SAMe has been used with mixed success in treating osteoarthritis; Arthritis.org lists 5-HTP as one of the supplements to avoid if you have arthritis.
One of 5-HTP’s main drawing points is its ability to improve sleep. SAMe isn’t a good option for insomnia, as it boosts alertness.
L-Tryptophan is an amino acid like 5-HTP. It’s available in your diet from turkey, meat, yogurt, fish, bananas and other food.
These sources don’t significantly boost the blood level of L-Tryptophan, so you’ll need to take a supplement to experience more of its health effects. When you take L-Tryptophan, it’s converted into serotonin and melatonin in your body.
It’s been shown to successfully treat people with insomnia and improve the sleep quality of fibromyalgia patients due to its calming effects. A double-blind study showed that L-Tryptophan, when taken by mouth, can reduce pain sensitivity and increase tolerance to acute pain.
L-Tryptophan vs. 5-HTP Comparison
5-HTP is better at producing serotonin, as it can cross the blood-brain barrier quickly, while L-Tryptophan must compete with other amino acids to pass the barrier.
L-Tryptophan may be better for improving sleep patterns, while 5-HTP can aid in weight loss.
Your body may develop a tolerance to 5-HTP because it’s so efficient, while L-Tryptophan’s effects are subtle.
5-HTP offers short-term benefits for insomnia, weight loss, depression, and anxiety.
It helps with these conditions because:
- It turns into L-Tryptophan when consumed. L-Tryptophan helps to produce mood and sleep-regulating serotonin.
- 5-HTP provides a short-term, non-prescription solution for mild to moderate anxiety and depression.
- Its relaxing qualities may also ease pain from headaches and fibromyalgia.
While it does work well for all these conditions, it has a “use-by” date of 12 weeks and interacts with dozens of drugs, including SSRIs. If you are on prescription medication for depression, don’t use 5-HTP as it may cause serotonin syndrome and dangerous complications.
Always buy 5-HTP from a familiar source to avoid the small chance of L-Tryptophan contamination.
Anyone who needs a natural, long-term solution to treat depression should look into Vitamin D, B-complex vitamins (especially B-12), L-Theanine or fish oil, which have fewer side effects and can be used indefinitely in most cases.