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Is 5-HTP Right for You?

[How 5-htp Works | How to Take 5-HTP | Test Your Knowledge About 5-HTP

Taking 5-HTP (or 5-hydroxy 1-tryptohan) can be a crap­shoot. When it's effective, the substance can be used as an aid in weight loss, insomnia, and depression. However, 5-HTP is not for everyone, and at times the body can express its disagreement in very obvious ways.

In his 1998 book, 5-HTP: Nature's Serotonin Solution, author Ray Sahelian, M.D. reserved several pages for testimonials. Some 5-HTP users heaped praise for its ability to suppress the appetite, improve mood and even reduce the effects of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, many people who had used 5-HTP remarked they felt sluggish and had vivid nightmares. 

How 5-HTP Works

5-HTP is created naturally in the body from the amino acid tryptophan, which is then used in the body to produce serotonin, the neurotransmitter. It plays a role in sleep, pain thresholds, blood flow, hunger/satiety, libido, and possibly in depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. It's easy to see why 5-HTP can be so helpful.

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How to Take 5-HTP

First available over the counter in 1994, supplemental 5-HTP is derived from the seeds of the griffonia plant, which is native to western Africa. According to Phyllis A. Balch, CNC, and James F. Balch, M.D., authors of Prescription for Nutritional Healing, 5-HTP should be used together with a high-carbohydrate food liquid as part of a comprehensive nutritional program.

The authors also say that anyone who takes large doses of the substance, over 300 mg daily, should undergo blood testing for eosinophil every three months. According to the website 5­, excessive 5-HTP stimulation may cause "serotonin syndrome," which is an excess accumulation of serotonin in the synapses. This syndrome is characterized by altered mental states, problems performing independently, and muscle control problems. 

For those who want to use 5-HTP continuously, Dr. Sahelian recommends limiting that time to fewer than three months, with daily dosages not exceeding 75 mg. "As with any medicine, it's best to use the lowest effective dosage and to occasionally take breaks," he writes.

A cause for concern came in 1998, when the Food and Drug Administration released a report stating that a chemical compound known as "peak X" was detected in some 5-HTP products. Peak X may cause a disabling and sometimes fatal blood disorder. It's the reason tryptohan was taken off the market, and it was assumed that 5-HTP couldn't pose the same risk.

Despite some issues, there are plenty of clinical studies proving the worth of 5-HTP as an anti-depressant and as an aid for headaches (especially for children and those suffering migraines). In fact, Dr. Sahelian believes that done correctly, 5­HTP can be used in combination with pharmaceutical antidepressants, anti-anxiety agents, and sleeping pills.

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Test Your Knowledge About 5-HTP

1) What prohibits people from taking serotonin directly, instead of 5-HTP?

    a) 5-HTP can cross the blood-brain barrier; serotonin can't
    b) Serotonin is hard to duplicate in laboratories
    c) Too high a dose of serotonin can cause life-altering psychotic episodes
    d) FDA has banned serotonin for containing "peak X"

2) What enzyme converts tryptophan into 5-HTP?

    a) Tryptophan pydroxylase;
    b) Tryptophan hydroxylase
    c) Pepsin;
    d) Cellulase

3) What should be monitored if you take 5-HTP for an extended period?

    a) Vital signs;
    b) Weight;
    c) Sleep patterns
    d) Mood and motivation;
    e) All of the above

4) In what way does serotonin affect sexual function?

    a) Excess serotonin can cause erectile dysfunction
    b) In women, depleted serotonin levels leads to infertility
    c) Excess serotonin decreases sexual drive
    d) None of the above
    e) All of the above

5) How does 5-HTP work as a weight loss agent?

    a) It increases the body's metabolism, much like ephedra
    b) It creates a fuller feeling, satisfying a person's appetite sooner
    c) It increases the frequency of bowel movements
    d) It digests food more efficiently

Answers: See 5-HTP, NP, 100 mg, 120 capsules

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5-HTP: Nature's Serotonin Solution. Ray Sahelian, M.D. Avery Publishing Group, Garden City Park, NY. 1998.

Prescription for Nutritional Healing-Third Edition. James F. Balch, M.D. and Phyllis A. Balch, CNC. Avery/Penguin, New York. 2000.

This article is reprinted with permission from Vitamin Retailer magazine, November 2003, and is provided for educational purposes only. No part of this article is intended as medical advice. Always consult your health care provider for any medical problems.

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