Considering the impact our mood has on our overall wellbeing and quality of life—and how challenging it can be to maintain mental and emotional health in the evermore complicated modern world—it’s no wonder that supplements for mood balance have become popular in recent years. There have been plenty of big names in the game, from CBD and maca to ashwagandha and GABA, and lately, a compound called 5-HTP has been making a splash.
It may sound more like a Star Wars droid than a supplement, but 5-HTP is a legitimate player that deserves our attention. Here’s everything you need to know, including whether it may be right for you.
What Is 5-HTP?
5-HTP, short for l-5-hydroxytryptophan, is a chemical naturally produced by humans and other animals that plays an important role in producing other chemicals that impact health in major ways. “5-HTP is a derivative of tryptophan that can transform into the feel-good hormone serotonin, and then into melatonin,” explains dietitian Kelly Jones, R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D.N. Since serotonin modulates everything from mood and memory to learning and sleep, and melatonin regulates our sleep-wake cycle, that’s kind of a big deal.
Some plants (including St. John’s Wort) and fungi (like chanterelle mushrooms) naturally contain notable amounts of 5-HTP and it can also be produced synthetically (which is how you’ll find it in supplements), Jones says.
The Potential Perks Of Supplementing with 5-HTP
The idea behind taking 5-HTP as a supplement is that doing so supports the production of serotonin, which then allows for optimal melatonin production. Here’s what that translates to.
If you struggle to maintain a healthy mood, 5-HTP could be one way to tip the scales in favor of a sunnier disposition. “If 5-HTP supplements can help individuals not already producing enough of 5-HTP and therefore not producing adequate serotonin and melatonin, they could positively impact mood, attention span, learning abilities, memory, cognition, productivity and more,” Jones explains. “Serotonin, in particular, is best known for playing a role in mood, so you may feel happier and more stable emotionally with normal levels of it.”
healthy circadian rhythm
Struggling to fall asleep or sleep soundly may reflect a problem with melatonin function. This issue is all too common, as everything from caffeinated drinks to excess screen time messes with your body’s circadian rhythm and melatonin production.
“Melatonin levels should be 10-fold higher at night than during the day, which helps to signal the body that it is night and time to sleep and is important for building circadian rhythm,” Jones explains. While more research is needed to fully understand 5-HTP’s role in sleep quality, there are some studies that suggest that the compound may be able to help, Jones says. A couple worth noting: this study on sleep disturbances in children and another on REM sleep in adults.
Important Considerations For Supplementing With 5-HTP
As with any supplement, it’s important to consult with a physician before taking 5-HTP to make sure you’re aware of any potential interactions between it and other medications, supplements, or health conditions, suggests Jones. It’s worth noting that, in clinical settings, 5-HTP is often used alongside prescription drugs to support mental health, she adds. However, those taking such medications should absolutely talk to their provider before throwing 5-HTP into the mix.
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It’s also important to monitor your intake of exogenous 5-HTP, as too much serotonin production can ultimately backfire. “An excess of serotonin can be problematic, leading to altered mental status and neuromuscular dysfunction termed ‘serotonin syndrome,’” Jones warns.
Lastly, 5-HTP may cause GI discomfort in some, particularly at doses exceeding 100 milligrams, Jones says. “Since gut microbiome health may also greatly impact mental health, these GI disturbances may not be worth the potential benefits of 5-HTP supplements in those that experience them,” explains Jones. If 5-HTP causes digestive upset for you, consider other sleep- and mood-supporting supplements instead.
How to Take 5-HTP
Generally, it’s best to start with a lower dose of 5-HTP and increase your intake incrementally in order to safeguard against the potential for serotonin syndrome. “Serotonin syndrome effects can occur at doses of 100 to 200 milligrams in some people, but recommended doses may be up to 200 to 500 milligrams,” Jones explains. 5-HTP is far from one-size-fits-all, so taking a conservative approach is a good move.
It’s also important to note that it can take up to six weeks to experience the maximum benefits from a given amount of 5-HTP. Jones recommends resisting the temptation to level up your amount without sticking to your starting dose for that long. Patience is a must for ensuring your body has time to adjust!