Is 5-HTP the next magic pill?O, The Oprah Magazine, July 2005
BUZZ: Advocates claim that boosting your levels of 5-hydroxytryptophan
(5-HTP) is a natural way to ease such chronic problems as depression,
insomnia, and migraines. Because 5-HTP is a chemical precursor of
serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates all of these conditions,
proponents of the supplement claim that it works by increasing
serotonin in the brain. A spate of books pushing 5-HTP may have led to
its recent surge in sales.
THE SCIENCE: When researchers at the
University of Queensland School of Medicine in Australia did a
comprehensive review of 5-HTP studies, they came up with little
evidence that the supplements, on their own, relieve depression. Most
of the 5-HTP in a supplement is converted to serotonin in the
intestines and never gets as far as the brain. But when taken with a
prescription drug used in patients with Parkinson's disease (called a
decarboxylase inhibitor), which helps it reach the brain intact, the
combination can be an effective antidepressant. A few small studies
imply that 5-HTP alone may ease insomnia and reduce migraines, but the
results are hardly definitive.
THE DRAWBACKS: When someone takes
5-HTP without the decarboxylase inhibitor, her gut produces too much
serotonin. This surplus can't cross into the brain, but it can cause
nausea and diarrhea. "Lower doses aren't going to work," says Simon
Young, PhD, a neuropharmacologist at McGill University in Montreal.
"And higher doses will almost certainly give you stomach upset."
YOU TAKE IT? Probably not. It likely won't do much but make you feel
sick. And given that the FDA doesn't regulate supplement production,
there are real safety questions. In 1998, for instance, the FDA and the
Mayo Clinic issued a warning that a dangerous impurity had been found
in 5-HTP supplements. Since prescription drugs that alleviate
migraines, insomnia, and depression exist, they may be the better