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5-HTP for Depression

Frequently Asked Questions About 5-HTP


Updated May 27, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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What Is 5-HTP?

5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, is an amino acid that our body produces from a dietary amino acid called l-tryptophan. It has the ability to be converted into the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin as well as the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.

5-HTP may also be synthesized in the laboratory by extracting it from the seeds of the plant Griffonia simplicifolia.

How Does It Work?

Although l-tryptophan can be obtained by eating foods that contain it, such as red meat and turkey, its ability to be converted into 5-HTP - and ultimately into serotonin - is limited by the availability of an enzyme called tryptophan hydroxylase. Tryptophan hydroxylase 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.

Is It an Effective Treatment for Depression?

Overall, the clinical trials published to date indicate that 5-HTP may be effective in treating depression, both on its own and when used in conjunction with prescription antidepressants. Better quality studies are needed, however, to firmly establish its effectiveness.

Is It Safe and Well-Tolerated?

Doses of around 200-300 mg per day seems to be fairly well-tolerated.

The most common side effects reported with 5-HTP include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Less common side effects include headache, insomnia and heart palpitations.

Gastrointestinal side effects appear to 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 which also increase serotonin, such as SSRIs or MAOIs, there exists the possibility that 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 myoclonus. Patients experiencing these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention, as this condition can be fatal.

Can It Be Used During 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, it cannot be recommended.


Iovieno, Nadia, Elizabeth D. Dalton, Maurizio Fava and David Michoulon. "Second-tier natural antidepressants: Review and critique." Journal of Affective Disorders. 130 (2011): 343-357.

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