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5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) - Supplement Profile

by Rehan Jalali - Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you have strong cravings for the wrong kinds of foods and end up binging? Do you have some symptoms of depression? How about headaches? Well, if you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then the supplement 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) may be right for you.

5-HTP is the intermediate metabolite in the serotonin pathway. The amino acid L-tryptophan converts into 5-HTP and then 5-HTP converts directly into the important neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is a key factor in determining sleep, appetite, mood, and other body functions including pain control. 5-HTP is basically the direct pre-cursor to serotonin. Some research suggests that oral 5-HTP supplementation can also increase other neurotransmitters and brain chemicals like dopamine, melatonin, and beta-endorphin. 5-HTP is very well absorbed orally and easily crosses the blood-brain barrier. According to several studies including one published in the Alternative Medicine Review in 1998, 5-HTP can effectively increase central nervous system production of serotonin. It can be taken with food without any competitive absorption problems. The 5-HTP that is found in supplements today is extracted from the seeds of the African plant, griffonia simplicifolia.

5-HTP can act as an anti-oxidant which can always be helpful in scavenging damaging free radicals. 5-HTP has been shown to have anti-depressive effects although further research still needs to be done in this area. This may not sound like it’s important to exercising individuals or athletes but one of the things that can happen to athletes is overtraining or overreaching syndrome (especially in hard training athletes who don’t get enough rest and eat poorly). This can cause depression-like effects in these individuals. That is where a supplement like 5-HTP comes in. It can help alleviate some of these symptoms in over-trained individuals.

Sleep is also very important to training athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike. 5-HTP has been shown to help improve sleep quality and even treat insomnia in some cases. Plus it has the added benefit of helping to prevent chronic headaches. It apparently works by increasing REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Sleep is a key time for amino acid turnover and protein synthesis as well as key hormone release. Before I go any further, anyone involved in a weight training program should be getting at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night (I have to stand on my soap box on this one!). For one thing, even partial sleep deprivation can cause alterations in the hormonal response to exercise which can lead to major muscle breakdown. Also, partial sleep deprivation can have adverse effects on the immune system as well. Bottom line, proper sleep is essential for exercising individuals and 5-HTP supplementation may help us sleep better.

Obesity is a major problem these days for many people. One of the reasons for this is carbohydrate cravings and hence binge eating. Appetite suppression is essential to weight loss. Since low serotonin levels have been associated with higher cravings for carbohydrates and binge eating, taking 5-HTP to balance serotonin levels may help reduce or nullify these cravings. Studies with 5-HTP supplementation in obese individuals showed reduced food intake and significant weight loss. It can have powerful appetite suppressing effects. One of the studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1992 states "significant weight loss was observed in 5-HTP-treated patients during both periods. A reduction in carbohydrate intake and a consistent presence of early satiety were also found." The researchers in this study went on to say that 5-HTP may be safely used to treat obesity. Another study published in 2005 and conducted at the University of Liverpool mentioned that 5-HTP is a serotonin precursor which has been shown to produce weight loss in the obese. I think it’s safe to say that 5-HTP supplementation can aid in weight loss as part of a complete nutrition and fitness program.

The dosages of 5-HTP vary with the desired effect. For improving sleep quality, taking 200-300 mg before bed time may be useful. For weight loss, the recommended dosage is 300 mg taken three times daily. For anti-depressive effects, a good dose is 100 mg three times daily. As you can see, 5-HTP has many benefits to exercising individuals!


Birdsall, TC. "5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor," Altern Med Rev. 1998, 3 (4): 271-280.

Cangiano, C, et al.," Eating behavior and adherence to dietary prescriptions in obese adult subjects treated with 5-hydroxytryptophan," Am J Clin Nutr. 1992, 56 (5): 863-867.

Halford, JC, et al., "Serotonin (5-HT) drugs: effects on appetite expression and use for the treatment of obesity," Curr Drug Targets 2005, 6 (2): 201-213.