5-HTP, or 5-Hydroxytryptophan, is a supplement you can find at any wellness/health store. Tryptophan (the last part of the name) is an essential amino acid, which means that although we need it, our bodies cannot make it – we can only get it through our diet.
Animal proteins tend to be high in tryptophan, but those of us who are plant-based may struggle to find it naturally. Once you consume it, however, our body then converts the amino acid into 5-HTP and this compound then goes on to manufacture 5-HT – which is serotonin.
What are the benefits of taking 5-HTP?
Improved gut health
“5-HTP is the direct step our bodies need to create serotonin,” says Alex Glover, senior nutritionist at Holland & Barrette. “It’s important because we associate serotonin with happiness and mood, but it’s also very involved in our digestive system. It’s responsible for pushing food through our intestinal digestive tract.
Often when we feel anxious, we feel it in our stomach. We also know that 95% of our serotonin is made in the gut, so if your digestion is slow, it makes sense that your mood is likely affected.
According to Glover, taking 5-HTP can “immediately” boost your serotonin levels, which can improve mood and relaxation.
Glover says it’s also associated with improved sleep quality. “A lot of people take it just before sleeping because serotonin plays a role in our sleep cycle. It continues to make melatonin.
A study found that a combination of 5-HTP and GABA significantly reduced the time it took to fall asleep, increased sleep duration, and improved sleep quality. A drug review also found that 5-HTP supplementation may offer long-term relief from night terrors. He also pointed to a study in which people who took it spent 53% more time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep than the placebo group.
How long does it take to feel the effects of 5-HTP?
Now, at this point, it should be emphasized that Glover is talking about 5-HTP from a purely physiological/biological point of view of action. It is a fact that the compound helps the body produce the happiness hormone, as well as the sleep-inducing melatonin. Whether or not this causes you to feel incredibly happy or sleep very soundly, however, is another matter.
That said, there are plenty of people who swear by its effectiveness. Glover says its effects are very dependent on when you take it and how much. If you take a load of different amino acids together, your body may have trouble absorbing them all.
“In some PH research, doses can range from 100 to 800 mg – so there is quite a large variation in the dose studied clinically,” he explains. “But if you look at the biology of HPT, the serotonin elevation can happen quite immediately. I’m not saying it happens immediately and for some people it might not happen at all, but the answer biological is quite immediate.
Adding vitamins can also make it more bioavailable to the body. If you look at most 5-HTP supplements, they tend to be combined with vitamin B6, for example, because that’s the key amino acid involved in converting 5-HTP into serotonin.
When should you take 5-HTP?
Glover recommends taking the supplement about 30 minutes before bedtime, washing it down with a glass of water and away from food. As an isolated amino acid, “it’s probably best taken on its own because you don’t need a lot of stomach acid to break it down,” he says. He also recommends starting with a low dose and then increasing it as you get used to it. You might not notice any difference in your sleep, but if Holland & Barret’s customer reviews are up to snuff, you might just start having some pretty wild dreams.
“It’s a marker for REM sleep, which is a very important phase of sleep,” says Glover. “I tend to think of REM as our emotional first aid phase of sleep, when our memories are consolidated and we do our emotional reasoning.” 5-HTP-induced REM sleep has also been associated with reduced symptoms of depression.
While 5-HTP obviously can’t cure you of poor mental health, we do know that REM sleep is very important from an emotional health perspective – and it looks like 5-HTP could help with that.