5-HTP And Anxiety: Uses, Benefits, And Side Effects
Updated August 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Debra Halseth, LCSW
What Is 5-HTP?
5-Hyrdroxytryptophan, otherwise known as 5-HTP, or Oxitriptan, is an amino acid building block for the brain's production of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that works to regulate mood and anxiety. When serotonin levels are normal, they contribute to a happy disposition and a healthy sleep cycle.
5-HTP is actually a chemical that your body produces on its own, but natural production of 5-HTP decreases as a person ages. Taking additional 5-HTP as a supplement is believed to be a way of artificially boosting the body's production of the biochemical compound serotonin, which can have numerous health and mental health benefits.
5-HTP is considered a dietary supplement, and as such, is sold over the counter in the U.S. However, unlike many other supplements, 5-HTP does not occur naturally in foods we eat. It has been available in the U.S. without a doctor's prescription since the mid-1990s and sold as a medicine in several European countries since the 1970s.
5-HTP is produced from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia, a woody shrub grown primarily in West Africa. It is used to treat a wide array of disorders and conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, depression, migraine, and more.
Doctors have long used prescription medications to manage and treat conditions like depression and anxiety. The appeal of using 5-HTP instead is that it claims to be a natural or holistic substitute, or at the very least a compliment, to prescription mental health treatments.
Potential Uses For 5-HTP
5-HTP is said to alleviate symptoms of the following conditions:
- Migraine and other types of occasional headache
- Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Chronic headaches
- Parkinson's disease
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
- Binge eating
- Seizure disorders
- Sleep apnea
- Alcohol and drug withdrawal symptoms
- Nervous system disorders
Is 5-HTP An Effective Treatment?
5-HTP operates by increasing production of the chemical serotonin in the brain. Because inadequate serotonin levels can negatively impact many aspects of physical and mental health, including sleep, appetite and body temperature, it is believed that 5-HTP's serotonin-boosting effects can improve certain conditions related to these health aspects.
The relief from taking 5-HTP is said to "kick in" quickly, making it more appealing than traditional prescription antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, which can often take weeks or months before patients start to experience positive effects or relief. 5-HTP also metabolizes in the system quickly. Sources indicate that it should not be taken long term - like not for more than three months - because of potential side effects and also because its positive effects tend to dissipate over time. Taking 5-HTP is intended to be more of a short-term solution.
5-HTP is considered a holistic herbal supplement rather than a medication, so there have not been enough clinical trials involving human participants to encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to evaluate and approve it. There is not currently sufficient evidence for 5-HTP's effectiveness for the treatment of a number of diseases and disorders such as alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease, and schizophrenia, among others. This is not to say that it is not effective for these conditions. However, more clinical study is needed to make an official determination on the effectiveness of 5-HTP for these uses, as well as to investigate other possible side effects and dictate dosages and courses of treatment.
Should You Take 5-HTP For Anxiety?
Not much research or recent studies have been conducted on the use of 5-HTP for anxiety, so the jury is still out on its effectiveness in treating patients with anxiety. Some evidence suggests that taking 5-HTP for anxiety can reduce the effects of general anxiety. In one study, patients took 5-HTP in combination with carbidopa (a drug that increases the amount of 5-HTP entering the brain by inhibiting the enzyme that breaks down 5-HTP in the bloodstream). Some patients reported improvements in their anxiety symptoms that were comparable to patients being treated with prescription anti-anxiety medications.
Some research demonstrates that 5-HTP can promote relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety. Other research shows that taking higher amounts of 5-HTP could possibly increase anxiety symptoms and make patients feel worse. This is obviously a side effect you would not want to experience, especially if the reason you're taking 5-HTP is to manage symptoms of anxiety.
Yet another study found that patients with panic disorder experienced reduced anxiety and panic when taking 5-HTP, although the study also found that patients who did not have panic disorder did not experience the same reduction in their symptoms of anxiety.
There is evidence, however, that 5-HTP can help you sleep better by increasing the production of melatonin, a chemical your body naturally produces that plays an important role in regulating sleep and wakefulness cycles, otherwise known as a circadian rhythm. Getting a good night's sleep may help improve some symptoms of anxiety. In addition, 5-HTP's serotonin-boosting qualities can have a positive effect on patients suffering from anxiety symptoms. Serotonin is linked to well-being and joy, and having more of that "happiness" chemical in the brain could reduce the severity of anxiety symptoms.
How Much 5-HTP Should You Take?
The range of doses varies widely, from 25 milligrams to 500 milligrams and up.
Starting with a low dose can minimize the risk of suffering potential side effects, especially serotonin syndrome, a condition caused by too much serotonin. Risk of adverse effects diminishes significantly when starting a course of 5-HTP at a low dose, such as 25 milligrams per day, and increasing gradually over time.
It may also help improve the quality of sleep, and reduce daytime anxiety when taken at bedtime. Gradually increasing the dose at bedtime from 50 milligrams to 200 or 300 milligrams over two to three weeks has shown to help chronically anxious patients who suffer from sleeplessness.
In general, taking low doses of 5-HTP is fairly safe, but research indicates that various levels of 5-HTP are required for the treatment of different conditions, and taking a dose that is too low may be completely ineffective. There is no specific broad-spectrum daily allowance or recommended daily dosage for 5-HTP.
So essentially, how much 5-HTP you should take depends on the reason you plan to take it. As with any other medication or supplement, you should talk to your doctor about your concerns and your plan to try taking 5-HTP. Your doctor can help you figure out a safe dosage and course of treatment.
What Are The Dangers Or Side-Effects Of 5-HTP?
The potential side effects of taking 5-HTP are many, and worrisome, including heart palpitations, abdominal discomfort, heartburn, stomach pain, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, vivid dreams, shivering, agitation, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, and heart and muscle problems. It can also cause some of the very conditions it is intended to treat, including aggressiveness, restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia.
There is also some evidence that while 5-HTP may increase levels of serotonin in the brain, it may also deplete the levels of other neurotransmitters, including dopamine and norepinephrine. In this way, long-term use of 5-HTP could potentially make certain medical conditions, like generalized anxiety disorder, worse. You may want to consider taking an additional supplement that increases the amount of dopamine in the body, to counteract this side effect.
In addition, 5-HTP can interfere with other prescription or over-the-counter medications. For example, when taken in high doses, in conjunction with monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, 5-HTP can cause the serotonin-toxicity syndrome. 5-HTP may also cause interactions with Dextromethorphan, a compound found in many over-the-counter cough medicines, as well as some pain medications, like Tramadol and Demerol.
You should be cautious when taking 5-HTP in conjunction with other supplements, such as Kava, St. John's wort, valerian, and skullcap, as the combination of these can lead to excessive sleepiness, and others, like S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), can combine with 5-HTP to cause a dangerous spike in serotonin levels.
Another thing to consider is that since 5-HTP is not regulated by the FDA, manufacturers are not subject to the same rigorous testing and quality control that the makers of prescription drugs are required to perform. Using only USP-verified supplements can help minimize the risk of serious adverse effects related to quality control.
Pregnant and nursing women and children should absolutely not take 5-HTP without the advice of a physician.
If you're taking 5-HTP and experience these or any other negative side effects, you should stop using it and see a doctor immediately.
You should also discontinue taking 5-HTP at least two weeks prior to undergoing any type of surgical procedure, to avoid any interaction with drugs often used during surgeries.
If you're considering 5-HTP for anxiety, depression or other mental health condition, the safest course of action is to discuss it with your doctor first, to determine dosage and length of treatment, as well as to eliminate any potential contraindications or drug interactions. 5-HTP may work best for you alone, or in conjunction with other treatments, such as prescription pharmaceuticals, therapy, diet, and other supplements.