5-HTP: The natural alternative to prozac




obsessive-compulsive disorder

migraine headaches

sleep disturbances


carbohydrate craving


back pain


feelings of helplessness


They are all the symptoms of what has recently come to be called serotonin deficiency syndrome. All these symptoms are treatable with the now popular drugs called the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) of which Prozac Register Trademark, Zoloft Register Trademark and Paxil Register Trademark are the most well known. The SSRI drugs work by selectively targeting certain parts of the brain and there inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin into the synapses. Theoretically this leads to more serotonin activity only in those parts of the brain where you want it. The SSRIs are exceptionally effective at eliminating the symptoms of serious depression. However, the SSRIs are not really as elegant as this picture suggests and the side effects are quite well known. It is common, for instance, for people to report that the drug eliminates the sex drive and leaves people with a drugged-like feeling.

5-HTP (5-hydroxy-tryptophan) is notably different; 5-HTP is a natural substance normally synthesized in the body from dietary tryptophan (the amino acid).

When you take 5-HTP orally it crosses the blood-brain barrier and then acts as the immediate precursor to serotonin, so your brain uses the 5-HTP to make additional serotonin wherever it is needed.

Tryptophan can work the same way but 5-HTP appears to be more effective than tryptophan. Theoretically, if you take tryptophan orally, it is made into 5-HTP and then serotonin. But the tryptophan to 5-HTP step is apparently optional and regulated by a number of biochemical mechanisms; 5-HTP appears to be a much more reliable way of increasing serotonin levels. Double-blind clinical trials comparing the efficacy of tryptophan and 5-HTP have found that 5-HTP may be more helpful for people with depression. People who have used both tryptophan and 5-HTP have found that 50 mg of 5-HTP is approximately the equivalent of 500 mg of tryptophan.

(For those who don't remember, tryptophan was in common use for years by people who took it successfully to relieve depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and PMS. But in 1989 it was taken off the market by the FDA after a bad batch was produced by a single Japanese manufacturer. The contaminated batch caused many people to become sick and some died. The FDA subsequently banned all tryptophan supplements from all sources. Now, even though it is common knowledge that it was the contamination and not tryptophan per se that made people sick, the FDA has refused to lift the ban.)

In one French trial, 36 patients with severe depression were treated with 5-HTP. The authors of the study reported that 28 responded positively, four could not tolerate the treatment and four did not respond.

A Japanese study gave 5-HTP to 24 patients who were hospitalized for presumably severe depression. After two weeks of treatment, in seven of the subjects with unipolar depression, they observed a "marked amelioration of depressive symptoms." It was also noted that those subjects who received 5-HTP had a 30 percent increase of 5-HIAA in their cerebrospinal fluid; 5-HIAA is a metabolite of serotonin and an indicator of increased serotonin activity in the brain. This strongly suggests that the 5-HTP was being converted into serotonin.

In a few studies of clinically-depressed humans, 5-HTP worked as well or better than the standard tricyclic antidepressants (e.g., Elavi Trademark)--the most effective drugs for treating depression until the development of the SSRIs, Plus the 5-HTP had no side effects. This one fact in itself should have 5-HTP plastered on the front cover of every consumer magazine. The reason that has not happened has to do mostly with money. Nobody has hired the high-powered PR firms to publicize 5-HTP because it is a relatively inexpensive and unpatentable natural substance-an all too familiar story. The good news, however, is that once the story does get out, a lot more people will have access to and be able to afford this remarkable substance.

But the big question is how does 5-HTP compare to the SSRIs, This question was researched by a team of Swiss and German psychiatric researchers. The subjects, all of whom were diagnosed with depression, received capsules containing either 5-HTP, 100 ma, three times a day, or an SSRI (fluvoxamine), 150 ma, three times a day.

The results were startling. Both treatment groups showed a significant and nearly equal reduction in depression beginning at the second week and continuing through week six. After four weeks, 15 of 36 patients treated with 5-HTP and 18 of 33 patients treated with fluvoxamine had improved by at least 50 percent, according to scores on the depression rating scales. By the sixth week, both groups had about equal numbers showing 50 percent improvement. Overall, 5-HTP appeared to be better tolerated than the SSRI. This study suggests that 5-HTP may be as effective (or more so) than the SSRIs at helping with symptoms of depression.

Other studies show that 5-HTP may also help some symptoms of anxiety. Ten patients diagnosed with anxiety syndromes were treated with 5-HTP. A significant reduction in anxiety was observed on three different scales designed to measure anxiety. In another study of 20 people with panic disorders, several experienced a feeling of "relief" after receiving 5-HTP.

French researchers have found that 100 mg of 5-HTP can result in a significant improvement in sleep in people described as "mildly insomniac." Looking at sleep patterns in cats, a Norwegian scientist found that 5-HTP had effects on sleep that were similar to those produced by tryptophan.

SSRIs are commonly prescribed to suppress appetite in people who want to lose weight. It appears that 5-HTP may have a similar effect. A group of Italian researchers reported that 20 obese patients taking 5-HTP (900 mg/day) lost a significant amount of weight, had less carbohydrate intake and consistently became sated earlier than a similar group taking a placebo. They concluded that since 5-HTP was well tolerated, it could be safely used to treat obesity. According to British researcher J. Blundell of the University of Leeds, of the many appetite suppressants found to be "active" in laboratory animals, very few have clinical potential. Among the most promising candidates, he argues, are those that increase central levels of serotonin.

Migraine headaches are closely associated with serotonergic activity. The most effective drugs for halting migraine attacks (e.g., sumatriptan and dihydroergotamine) block specific serotonin receptors in the brain. SSRIs have also been effective in some people in preventing migraines. A few studies have found that 5-HTP may also be able to prevent migraines. Spanish researchers gave 5-HTP or methysergide, a long-time migraine treatment, to 124 migraineurs. They noted significant improvement in 71 percent of the 5-HTP-treated people and 75 percent of the methysergide-treated people. Among those treated with 5-HTP, improvement took the form of reduced intensity and duration, while frequency remained unchanged, and 5-HTP caused far fewer side effects than methysergide. The authors suggested that 5-HTP could be a treatment of choice in migraine prophylaxis.

A group of Italian researchers confirmed the prophylactic. effect of 5-HTP in 40 patients with migraine in a double-blind study. The patients were randomized to receive either 5-HTP (400 mg/day) or placebo for two months. By the end of two months, more than 90 percent of the 5-HTP-treated patients responded with a reduction in headache severity, frequency and duration, compared with only 16 percent of the placebo-treated patients.

"In functional dimensional parlance, treating a serotonin deficiency is tantamount to treating all symptoms figuring as behavioral expressions of the seroton-independent psychological dysfunctions," write Poldinger, Calanchini and Schwarz. They point out that these symptoms of serotonin deficiency may include depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, obsessive-compulsive traits and other psychological disorders. They also argue that the best way to address this deficiency may not be through SSRIs and other powerful, expensive, and in some cases, dangerous drugs. Rather, the answer may lie in a precursor to serotonin, 5-HTP, which has been neglected by many scientists, despite tantalizing hints in the scientific literature that it may have profound effects on a variety of extremely common and often debilitating ailments. Perhaps we should be listening.

Never replace or change your current medication without consulting your doctor or health care practitioner first; 5-HTP is a nutrient that can increase production of the necessary neurotransmitter serotonin. It is not meant to substitute for your current medication. However, it can be used safely in conjunction with SSRIs to increase levels of serotonin.

Adverse side effects of 5-HTP are rare and can include vascular headaches, nasal congestion, mild stomach aches and (even more rarely) constipation; 5-HTP should not be taken with strong MAO inhibitors.

Now a non-profit organization has been established to provide objective information on serotonin deficiency conditions. It is called the Serotonin Deficiency Foundation (SDF) and they provide a free fact sheet with information on 5-HTP, SSRIs and related matters. Readers can get it free by calling 1-800-976-2783 or 707-762-6144 or by writing to SDF, POB 751390 Petaluma, CA 94975-1390.

References available upon request from totalhealth Magazine.



John Morgenthaler is the co-author of Smart Drugs & Nutrients and Smart Drugs II: The Next Generation, Better Sex Through Chemistry and STOP the FDA, Save Your Health Freedom.

Share this with your friends