Celebrated actor and comedian Jim Carrey has revealed in several interviews that he’s struggled with depression for long periods in his life. He told interviewers that he took Prozac for a while. Prozac is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, which means it stops naturally occurring serotonin from being removed from your system and recycled.
The result is often an elevated mood, and the drug has been used to treat depression for years. However, Carrey found that Prozac didn’t allow him to get to the root of his issues.
He later says that he’s been taking supplements that “create serotonin” like 5-Hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP. This supplement is a popular over-the-counter treatment for several issues. Advocates claim that it can help with mental health issues and that it could even have cognitive-enhancing benefits.
But is it as effective and safe as people say? Learn more about this supplement, and its potentially harmful side effects.
What is 5-HTP?
5-HTP, or 5-Hydroxytryptophan, is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the brain. It’s also sold over-the-counter as a dietary supplement in the United States and abroad. The substance is said to help treat depression, suppress appetite, and aid in sleep. In Europe, it’s even sold as a medication to treat major depression.
5-HTP is an intermediate chemical that the body metabolizes from a chemical called tryptophan, which is found in a variety of food sources, especially egg whites, Atlantic cod, and soybeans. There’s a common myth that turkey has enough tryptophan in it to make you fall asleep on Thanksgiving. However, though turkey does contain tryptophan, it doesn’t contain much more than other meat sources like chicken, beef, pork chops, and salmon. The sleepiness you feel on Thanksgiving is more likely related to high-caloric intake and the resulting need for your body to rest and digest. However, the idea that tryptophan promotes sleep isn’t off-base.
Tryptophan is metabolized and turns into 5-HTP that becomes serotonin and then turns into melatonin. Melatonin promotes sleep and relaxation. However, when you eat something that’s high in tryptophan or take 5-HTP supplements during the day, it’s not necessarily going to knock you out for a nap. The brain needs darkness to convert serotonin into melatonin. When you’re awake and going about your day, your brain isn’t going to start producing chemicals that put you to sleep.
However, since these supplements can turn into serotonin and stay that way during the day, they may have some other significant effects. Serotonin is one of your brain’s feel-good chemicals that are tied to reward, mood, and motivation. A release of serotonin can have wide-reaching functions in the brain, but it may also be linked to increased cognition, elevated mood, and a release of anxiety.
Why People Use 5-HTP
A lack of serotonin in the brain has been connected to several mental health issues, including depression. If you were to take serotonin directly, or another serotonin precursor like tryptophan, it would have a hard time crossing the blood-brain barrier, which is a border that separates your blood in your circulatory system and your brain.
Some chemicals can’t pass through this barrier while others pass through freely. 5-HTP happens to be in the latter category. It’s able to pass through the barrier and convert into serotonin with more efficiency than other supplements.
For that reason, people use it to treat depression and as a nootropic drug that’s said to enhance cognitive ability. However, scientific studies into the effectiveness of the supplement for these purposes are generally lacking. It stands to reason that it would help to increase serotonin in the brains of people who are living with a disease that might be coming from a serotonin deficiency. However, one 2012 review of the available studies said, “Intuitively, the potential is extraordinary, but from a practical level efficacy is no better than placebo.”
Mental health issues like depression are complicated problems and, like addiction, require personalized and complex treatment approaches. 5-HTP may be beneficial to some, and a useful complementary treatment to others, which may be why it has such a devoted following of people who advocate for it.
However, the supplement isn’t a replacement for treatment. If you have been struggling with a mental health problem like depression or anxiety, it’s best to start by speaking to one or more medical or clinical professionals. Ask about 5-HTP as an option, but explore all the possibilities that might work for you with the help of professionals.
Side Effects of 5-HTP
The effects and side-effects of 5-HTP haven’t been thoroughly studied yet. It may be difficult to predict how you might react to the drug; however, most people report mild symptoms. 5-HTP can cause heartburn, stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, sleep disturbances, nightmares, and muscle aches.
Several studies have investigated the substance’s effects on the heart and found that it doesn’t cause any noticeable cardiovascular effects. Some people also report that they feel tired when taking a high dose of 5-HTP, which may have to do with a potential increase in the production of melatonin.
One study in rats showed that mixing a high dose of 5-HTP with MAOI or SSRI antidepressants leads to a condition called serotonin syndrome, which can be potentially dangerous. Serotonin syndrome can cause tremors, sweating, diarrhea, agitation, and increased body temperature. In severe cases, you may experience seizures and muscle breakdown. If you’re already being treated for depression or other mental health problems, ask your doctor before using 5-HTP.
How Effective is 5-HTP?
5-HTP is sold as an herbal supplement but not as medication, meaning it has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To date, not enough studies or human trials have been conducted to prove whether or not the supplement is effective, the dangers, or whether 5-HTP has side effects. However, it’s still used as an herbal treatment. There is evidence it’s effective in treating some conditions. Some people use 5-HTP for the following reasons:
- Mood disorders
- Weight loss
- Sleep disorders
These conditions can be improved naturally through increased serotonin. One study shows that using 50 to 300 milligrams of 5-HTP every day can improve symptoms of binge eating, depression, chronic headaches, or insomnia.
5-HTP has also been known to alleviate symptoms associated with:
- Seizure disorders
- Parkinson’s disease
Since those with fibromyalgia have been shown to have low serotonin levels, they might also find relief from the following:
- Morning stiffness
However, it begs the question, can that lead to 5-HTP withdrawal? Does 5-HTP addiction exist?
Is 5-HTP Addictive?
5-HTP isn’t known to be addictive or to cause chemical dependence. The substance is made in your body naturally, and your brain is equipped to remove excessive amounts that would otherwise cause problems in your brain chemistry. However, some people who take moderate doses of the supplement for long periods have reported mild withdrawal symptoms like insomnia or a lack of motivation. It’s possible that your body may take time to adjust to a sudden lack of serotonin in your system. However, these symptoms should be temporary and mild.
It’s also possible for you to develop a psychological addiction to 5-HTP. Like other substances, including marijuana and psychedelics that don’t cause chemical dependence, you may become psychologically dependent on the drug. After a long period of use, stopping can result in psychological symptoms like depression, anxiety, and insomnia. If you feel unpleasant physical or psychological symptoms, ask your doctor if the substances you’ve been taking may be related.
5-HTP for Depression
Some clinical trials have found that 5-HTP is as effective in treating depression as antidepressants. A six-week clinical trial with 63 people was given 100 mg of 5-HTP three times daily or an antidepressant and found that 5-HTP was as effective as the antidepressant. Also, 5-HTP was found to have fewer side effects than antidepressant drugs.
5-HTP for Migraines
5-HTP has also been shown to prevent migraines and reduce their severity and frequency. However, more research is needed to prove this. In a study from the same resource above, 124 people were given the supplement. After six months, 5-HTP was shown as effective as other treatments for migraines. It provided a significant reduction in the frequency as well.
Potential Dangers of 5-HTP
If you were to use too much 5-HTP at once, it could lead to a dangerous spike in serotonin levels in your body. Some 5-HTP side effects can lead to anxiety, severe heart problems, and shivering. If this is the case, stopping 5-HTP immediately is important for your health. Some of those who used the supplement have developed a severe condition known as eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), which can cause excessive muscle tenderness and blood abnormalities. It’s unclear whether the condition is caused by an accidental contaminant or from the 5-HTP itself.
There are some other potential 5-HTP side effects when using the supplement. It’s also possible for 5-HTP to cause bad dreams as it increases dream vividness. Other effects include the following:
- Sexual dysfunction
- Digestive issues
- Muscular issues
You must avoid using 5-HTP if you’re on other medications that increase your serotonin levels, including MAOIs or SSRIs. You should also take caution when using medicines for Parkinson’s disease, such as carbidopa. Those with Down syndrome should also avoid 5-HTP as it has been linked to seizures. You must avoid taking 5-HTP two weeks before surgery since it can interfere with drugs used during surgical procedures. Before using the supplement, you should always speak with your doctor and provide them with a list of medications you’re currently using.