Using 5-HTP to Treat Depression

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Research shows that using 5-HTP for depression may help alleviate depressive symptoms. 5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, is an amino acid that our bodies produce from a dietary amino acid called l-tryptophan. It can be converted into the mood-regulating neurotransmitter called serotonin, as well as the sleep-inducing hormone known as melatonin. 5-HTP may also be synthesized in the laboratory by extracting it from the seeds of the plant ​Griffonia simplicifolia.

Understanding Depression

Depression, which is also referred to as clinical depression or major depressive disorder, is a mood disorder that creates feelings of sadness and hopelessness that can last for a long period of time. Eventually, it starts to creep into your everyday life, affecting the way you think, how you deal with stress, the way you behave, and how you feel. Your regular activities of daily life, like getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, and showering may feel pointless and overwhelming. Your energy may feel sapped too, making it even easier to skip these small tasks.

Depression is more than the normal funk we all find ourselves in sometimes. The key to knowing it's time to find help is determining when your symptoms are bad enough that they're seriously impacting your life. Maybe you've stopped participating in activities you once enjoyed. Or maybe you find yourself sobbing on the bathroom floor all too often. Perhaps you don't even recognize yourself anymore as you hazily go through the motions of just barely living.

You may have depression only once, but many people who deal with depression have multiple episodes during their lifetimes. Keep in mind that depression isn't a personal flaw. It's a real medical condition that needs to be treated, and depending on the severity of your depression, the treatment may end up being a long-term process. Take heart though—the majority of people who have dealt with depression report feeling better once they start on medication, go to psychotherapy (counseling), or do a combination of both.

Depression Symptoms

Symptoms of depression are present during the majority of the day, just about every day, for two weeks or more and may include:

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, or empty
  • Crying more than usual
  • Anger or irritability
  • Sleeping too much or not sleeping enough
  • Loss of interest in normal activities or hobbies
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of energy
  • Appetite changes, such as eating more or less than usual
  • Weight changes as a result of appetite changes
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling worthless, guilty, and/or isolated
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Feeling agitated or restless
  • Thinking about death and/or suicide
  • Physical symptoms like unexplained headaches, backaches, or stomachaches

How 5-HTP Works

The essential amino acid l-tryptophan can be obtained by eating foods that contain it, such as red meat and turkey, but its ability to be converted into 5-HTP—and ultimately into serotonin—is limited by the availability of an enzyme called tryptophan hydroxylase. The amount of tryptophan hydroxylase in our bodies can be inhibited by many different factors, such as stress, insulin resistance, vitamin B6 deficiency, and magnesium deficiency. Supplementing with 5-HTP overcomes this problem by eliminating the need to convert l-tryptophan to 5-HTP, thus allowing more 5-HTP to be available for conversion to serotonin.

Effectiveness 

Overall, the clinical trials published to date indicate that 5-HTP may be effective in treating depression symptoms, both on its own and when used in conjunction with prescription antidepressants. However, better quality studies are needed to firmly establish its effectiveness, especially since they have only been done in small groups of people.

One study concluded that 5-HTP shouldn't be given by itself because it's not very effective and it may actually deplete neurotransmitters in your brain like dopamine and norepinephrine, which can make your depression worse. Instead, the researchers noted, 5-HTP should be given with dopamine or serotonin amino acid precursors in order to minimize side effects, prevent neurotransmitter depletion, and to get the most efficacy from 5-HTP. However, these supplemental amino acids need to be kept in careful balance or there's a risk of depression symptoms becoming worse due to neurotransmitter depletion.

A group of researchers who looked at the effects of 5-HTP in a slow-release form argue that this extended delivery method could make the supplement an important adjunctive (additional) therapy in people who have treatment-resistant depression. To support their beliefs, the researchers also did a related study on the performance of slow-release 5-HTP versus the immediate release formula in mice, which showed that the slow-release version was far more therapeutically effective.

The scientists conclude that developing a slow-release 5-HTP drug is doable and could be a particularly beneficial treatment for patients who appear to have 5-HT deficiencies, typically indicated by suicidal actions, severe depression, and co-occurring borderline personality disorder (BPD), all of which tend to be more resistant to SSRIs. Additionally, the researchers believe that slow-release 5-HTP could potentially help people who have been diagnosed with mental health disorders that are only partially responsive to SSRIs like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorders.

Safety and Side Effects 

Doses of around 200 to 300 mg per day of 5-HTP seem to be fairly well-tolerated. The most common side effects reported with 5-HTP include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Less common side effects include a headache, insomnia, and heart palpitations. Gastrointestinal side effects appear to be dose-dependent and tend to lessen over time.

There is one very serious safety concern with 5-HTP, however. When taken in conjunction with other medications for depression that also increase serotonin, such as SSRIs or monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), there is a possibility that your serotonin levels may become dangerously high. This condition, called serotonin syndrome, leads to symptoms such as high blood pressure, hyperthermia, flushing, hyperreflexia, dizziness, disorientation, and involuntary muscle twitching called myoclonus. Patients experiencing these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention, as this condition can be fatal.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

There is not currently enough data to tell whether 5-HTP is safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women to use. For this reason, you shouldn't take 5-HTP if you're expecting a child or nursing.

A Word From Verywell

Although you can buy it over-the-counter, talk to your doctor before starting on 5-HTP, especially if you're already taking other antidepressants or medications. Your doctor can make sure you're taking the right amount and that you're not susceptible to any potential drug interactions.

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