5-HTP And Anxiety: Uses, Benefits, And Side Effects

Updated July 17, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

This article discusses 5-hydroxytryptophan. Please consult with your doctor or primary care physician before considering any medication or supplements.

Most of us experience feelings of anxiety from time to time. You may feel anxious about a final test, work presentation, or another brief event – and in most cases, those feelings may fade shortly after the event passes. But when someone lives with an anxiety disorder, these anxious thoughts may not simply disappear. Left untreated, an anxiety disorder can make it difficult to navigate daily life, maintain healthy relationships, and work toward long-term goals. However, there may be several treatment options for people living with anxiety. In this article, we’ll specifically discuss 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). 5-HTP can be considered both a drug and a natural component of some dietary supplements that can be used to treat anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. It generally has very few side effects, but it can be crucial to speak with your doctor before taking it or any other supplement. Online and in-person therapy can also be effective ways to alleviate anxiety.

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What Is 5-HTP?

5-HTP is not usually found in foods, but instead is thought to be a chemical that the human body makes from tryptophan. Tryptophan is believed to be an essential amino acid derived from food sources. As a dietary supplement, 5-HTP is normally made from the seeds of an African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia.

How Can 5-HTP Reduce Anxiety?

Scientists are generally still studying the mechanisms of 5-HTP, but based on current research, 5-HTP may increase serotonin levels in the brain, which can reduce the symptoms of anxiety. 

Serotonin is considered to be a neurotransmitter in the brain that can play a major role in emotional processing, mood, appetite, sexual desire, sleep, and pain processing. By increasing serotonin, 5-HTP may improve sleep, mood, and appetite, and it may even reduce chronic pain.

In a 2002 study, researchers found that 5-HTP delivered as a capsule supplement usually significantly decreased the symptoms of people with panic anxiety disorder. Other research suggests that 5-HTP can also improve the symptoms of agoraphobia, a type of anxiety disorder normally characterized by a fear of becoming stuck in situations without a clear escape or help.  

People with anxiety disorders often struggle with sleep, changes in appetite, and mood changes, among other symptoms. By managing serotonin levels, 5-HTP can help individuals with anxiety lead much healthier lifestyles. 

Can 5-HTP Help People With Depression? 

Depression is generally linked to low serotonin levels. By increasing serotonin, 5-HTP may also help people living with depression. The science tends to support this concept. For example, a 2002 review of 108 clinical trials found that tryptophan and 5-HTP were typically better than placebos for treating depression, although the researchers acknowledged the need for further research. 

Today, other studies usually present similar takeaways. A 2021 review concluded that 5-HTP can be an effective treatment for depression as well as fibromyalgia, chronic headaches, insomnia, and anxiety. The researchers specifically examined 5-HTP derived from Griffonia simplicifolia, which may offer a unique advantage compared to other forms of 5-HTP. Because it can easily cross the blood-brain barrier, this type of 5-HTP is typically better absorbed after a person consumes a pill orally. When taken orally, studies indicate that 70% of an 5-HTP dose may be introduced into the bloodstream.

5-HTP And Insomnia

5-HTP can commonly be used to treat anxiety disorders and depression, but research also illuminates its potential effectiveness as a sleep aid, especially for people with insomnia. Once again, 5-HTP from Griffonia simplicifolia typically undergoes a unique “decarboxylation” process, which can lead to an increase in serotonin. A complex chemical interaction usually follows, potentially resulting in melatonin production.

Melatonin can initiate and control the sleep-wake cycle. By increasing melatonin, 5-HTP can be a transformative supplement for people with insomnia and other sleep disturbances.  

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Potential Side Effects Of 5-HTP

Based on a 2021 review of 5-HTP, this supplement is normally associated with relatively few adverse effects in people with depression. Regardless of the mental health condition, taking high doses of 5-HTP may result in gastrointestinal problems. In a 2008 study, patients sometimes reported vomiting and nausea when they received 5-HTP above 100 mg. Other common side effects of standard 5-HTP dosing can include heartburn, gas, feelings of fullness, and a rumbling sensation.

Tryptophan, 5-HTP, and Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome (EMS)

Significant concerns around tryptophan and 5-HTP seemed to emerge in the 1980s, when researchers identified a possible association between contaminated tryptophan and Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome (EMS). EMS is thought to be a potentially fatal disorder affecting the skin, blood, muscles, and organs. Scientists traced cases of EMS to Peak X, a contaminant sometimes found in tryptophan supplements. 

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration removed these supplements from the market, Peak X was subsequently discovered in some 5-HTP supplements. In these cases, the concentration usually wasn’t high enough to cause harm, but this raised awareness of the importance of carefully screening, sourcing, and dosing supplements.  

More research may be needed to assess the dosing and other side effects of 5-HTP, but the supplement is generally safe when overseen by a licensed doctor and sourced from a reliable manufacturer. 

How Long Does 5-HTP Take To Kick In?

More research may be needed to determine how long it takes for 5-HTP to take effect. Based on current studies and anecdotal evidence, it can take 6 to 12 weeks of regular 5-HTP doses for people to experience relief from their symptoms. However, this time frame may vary depending on an individual’s condition and overall health. Always consult a licensed physician to determine the proper dosage of 5-HTP.

Can 5-HTP Make Anxiety Worse?

If taken at the proper dosage, 5-HTP can alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and other mental health conditions. If consumed in high quantities, however, 5-HTP can cause acute gastrointestinal issues in some people, as well as serotonin syndrome, which can be a dangerous condition caused by too much serotonin in the body.

5-HTP has not yet been linked to significant long-term side effects, although more systematic studies may be needed to explore this possibility. 

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Other Supplements For Anxiety

In addition to 5-HTP, your primary care doctor may recommend other supplements to treat your anxiety disorder or a related condition. The following supplements can be commonly used to support people with anxiety: 

1. Ashwagandha

This Ayurvedic herb is considered to be a modern adaptogen that can improve sleep and boost your resilience to stress. As an adaptogen, ashwagandha may help the body adapt to stress by calming its physiological processes. Ashwagandha has a long history in both traditional Ayurveda and Unani systems of medicine. 

2. Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo biloba, which can also be referred to as maidenhair tree, is usually viewed as an ancient tree that is traditionally used in Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian medicine. A 2017 review of Ginkgo biloba found that it often enhanced cognitive abilities in people with dementia in several clinical studies. In other studies, this herbal medicine generally improved symptoms in people with anxiety. Like other supplements, more research may be needed to verify the efficacy of Ginkgo biloba for the treatment of various health conditions.

3. St. John’s Wort

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), St. John’s wort is typically defined as a perennial flowering plant with an extensive history in folk medicine. Today, it can be commonly used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and mild to moderate depression. Mirroring recommendations for other anxiety treatments, the APA suggests more research to determine whether St. John’s wort is more effective than placebos for treating depression and other conditions.

Effectiveness Of Therapy For Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders can commonly be treated with psychotherapy. While your therapist and primary care doctor may recommend supplements, it’s usually best to participate in regular therapy sessions with a licensed therapist. 

One of the primary forms of therapy for anxiety may be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has frequently demonstrated effectiveness in both in-person and online settings. Under the guidance of a licensed therapist, CBT can help patients identify unhelpful thought processes and restructure problematic behaviors. 

Internet-based CBT, also called iCBT, may be especially promising. A growing number of studies have found that iCBT can significantly decrease feelings of anxiety, including a recent 2020 study. Following a 12-week iCBT program for people with anxiety and depression, the participants generally experienced significant reductions in their symptoms and sustained the improvement after treatment sessions. 

Online CBT and other forms of digital therapy may not only be effective, but they may also be more accessible and convenient for a wide range of patients. In the wake of the pandemic, many patients discovered the benefits of online therapy platforms, which typically match patients to licensed therapists based on their mental health needs and goals. Using this service, you can participate in therapy from the comfort of your home or anywhere with an internet connection. 

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5-HTP is generally considered to be a supplement, and it may be effective in addressing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and insomnia, among other mental health conditions. Its side effects generally include moderate gastrointestinal issues, and it can be vital to consult a medical professional before taking 5-HTP. Other potentially helpful supplements you may wish to speak to your doctor about may include ashwagandha, ginkgo biloba, and St. John’s wort. Online therapy can be another treatment avenue for depression and other mental health disorders.

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