Medically reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/15/2022
If you’ve ever looked into natural treatments for depression, you’ve probably seen mentions of a supplement called 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP.
5-HTP is a byproduct of L-tryptophan, an amino acid that’s used by your body to create proteins and certain natural chemicals. It’s often promoted as a dietary supplement for enhancing mood, reducing stress and promoting calmness.
Like with many other over-the-counter supplements, knowing what’s true and what isn’t can be a challenge when it comes to 5-HTP.
Below, we’ve discussed what 5-HTP is, as well as its potential uses and medical benefits. We’ve also dug into the science to find out which common claims about 5-HTP are accurate, as well as which aren’t supported by scientific evidence.
Finally, we’ve explained how you can use 5-HTP, from when to take 5-HTP for optimal results to potential side effects and more.
5-HTP is a byproduct of L-tryptophan, an amino acid found in dairy products, red meat, poultry and eggs. As an essential amino acid, your body uses L-tryptophan to produce proteins — the building blocks of your muscles, organs and other tissue.
When your body absorbs L-tryptophan from food, a small amount is converted naturally into the chemical 5-HTP. 5-HTP is then converted into serotonin — a type of signaling chemical called a neurotransmitter that’s used to facilitate communication between your cells.
Serotonin plays a key role in regulating your moods, happiness and levels of anxiety. Low levels of serotonin are associated with major depression, while healthy levels are generally linked to a more stable mental state.
Although it’s most closely associated with depression, serotonin also has numerous other critical functions within your body. These include:
Stimulating the parts of your brain that control your sleep-wake cycle.
Promoting effective blood clotting and optimal wound healing.
Managing certain aspects of your bone health and function.
Controlling your digestive function and bowel movements.
Many treatments for depression, including most antidepressants, work by increasing serotonin levels in your brain and body to promote more stable moods.
For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work specifically by increasing the amount of serotonin that’s active in your brain and body, while older medications for depression, such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) target multiple neurotransmitters.
So, how does 5-HTP fit into all of this? Within your brain and central nervous system, 5-HTP is involved in stimulating the production of serotonin and helping your body to maintain consistent serotonin levels.
Because of the role that 5-HTP plays in serotonin production, 5-HTP products are promoted as treatments for stress and low moods, and occasionally as supplements for depressive episodes.
Most 5-HTP supplements aren’t produced from L-tryptophan itself. Instead, they’re produced as a byproduct of Griffonia simplicifolia, an African plant that’s recognizable due to its green flowers and black pods.
Thanks to its popularity as a supplement, you can find 5-HTP online, in health food stores and in many supermarkets. It typically comes in tablet or capsule form and is sometimes one of several natural ingredients for boosting mood and treating other serotonin-related ailments.
So, does 5-HTP actually work? Like with many other supplements, there are plenty of ambitious claims made about 5-HTP, from its purported ability to enhance mood and help in the treatment of depression to claims of weight loss, reduced pain and better general quality of life.
Some of these claims are supported by real scientific evidence, while others don’t have quite as much research to back them up.
Before we get into specific uses for 5-HTP, let’s get one important thing out of the way. Because it’s a dietary supplement, 5-HTP isn’t subject to the same regulations imposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as most medications.
Put simply, dietary supplements are regulated by the FDA as foods, not as drugs. This means that all supplements, including 5-HTP, are not “intended to treat, diagnose, cure or alleviate” the effects of any disease or medical condition.
It also means that 5-HTP hasn’t been through the same rigorous testing routine of double-blind studies and safety testing as most medications available on the market, including many that are sold over-the-counter.
If you have a specific health condition, such as depression, 5-HTP shouldn’t be thought of as a replacement for antidepressant drugs, nor should it be viewed as something that you can use to replace other medications you’re prescribed by your healthcare provider.
Instead, it’s best viewed as what it is — a supplement. It might offer benefits, and it may deserve a place in your daily routine. However, it’s not a medication and shouldn’t be viewed as a “safer” or “better” alternative to anything you’re prescribed by your healthcare provider.
With this out of the way, let’s get into the potential benefits of 5-HTP, as well as the most recent research to support each one.
Although the precise cause of depression isn’t yet fully understood, most experts think that low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin play a major role in the symptoms of depression.
Because of its role as a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, 5-HTP is often marketed as a natural mood booster. Some users even believe that it may reduce the severity of some signs of depression, such as a reduced mood and pessimistic outlook on life.
This belief is supported by scientific research, although the quality of studies involving 5-HTP is mixed.
For example, research published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, a trusted database for systematic reviews in medical care, involved searching for and analyzing studies involving 5-HTP and depression.
The reviewers found a total of 108 trials, but only two — which involved just 64 patients — were of a high enough level of quality to meet the inclusion criteria. These studies showed that the use of 5-HTP and tryptophan appear to alleviate depression symptoms better than a placebo.
Several small, more recent studies have also found that 5-HTP appears to reduce the severity of depression symptoms, particularly when it’s used with other natural supplements.
For example, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology in 2017 found that women with major depressive disorder who were already using SSRI or SNRI drugs with few or no results showed improvements after using 5-HTP and creatine.
The researchers assessed the severity of depressive episodes using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D) score and concluded that the combination of 5-HTP and creatine could be effective for depression resistant to conventional treatments.
While these findings are interesting and certainly point in 5-HTP’s favor, it’s important to keep in mind that research is limited, and 5-HTP is by no means a well-established treatment option for major depressive disorder, treatment-resistant depression or a cure for depression.
However, if you’re currently receiving treatment for major depression, seasonal depression, or any other form of depressive illness, it may be worth discussing 5-HTP with your mental health provider.
In addition to serving as a building block for serotonin, 5-HTP is also involved in the production of melatonin. This is because serotonin is converted within your body to N-acetylserotonin — an intermediate chemical that’s used to synthesize melatonin.
Melatonin is a hormone that your brain uses to control your circadian rhythm and promote sleep on a consistent schedule. It’s produced by your body in response to darkness and is frequently used as an active ingredient in natural sleep aids.
Because of its role in melatonin production, some people believe that 5-HTP may help to reduce nighttime wakefulness, promote better sleep and improve some sleep disorders.
Although there isn’t any high-quality research on the sleep effects of 5-HTP by itself on humans, one study published in the American Journal of Therapeutics found that a combination of 5-HTP and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) improved sleep in people with sleep disorders.
The combination therapy not only reduced the amount of time required to fall asleep, but it also increased total sleep duration by a large amount. However, it’s difficult to know if the changes in sleep habits were caused solely by 5-HTP, by GABA or by both active ingredients.
Serotonin plays a significant role in regulating your appetite. In fact, researchers have known for decades that serotonin is involved in the control of satiety, or the feeling that you’ve consumed a sufficient amount of food to feel full.
Because of 5-HTP’s role in serotonin production, some experts have theorized that it may act as an appetite suppressant and help with weight loss.
Several studies seem to support this theory. For example, a double-blind study involving obese adult subjects found that people who used 5-HTP had a lower average food intake and greater amount of weight loss after five weeks than people who received a placebo treatment.
A separate clinical study involving people with diabetes found that 5-HTP supplementation can promote weight loss by reducing average carbohydrate and fat intake.
It’s worth noting that there’s no evidence that 5-HTP affects your metabolism, meaning it likely won’t cause you to burn more calories than normal. However, its impacts on your appetite and feelings of fullness may help you to adjust your diet and lose unwanted body weight.
Fibromyalgia is a condition that can cause widespread pain and discomfort, fatigue, difficulties with sleeping and mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.
Researchers aren’t aware of precisely what causes fibromyalgia, although it’s more common in women than in men. Some evidence suggests that women diagnosed with fibromyalgia have lower serotonin levels than their peers.
Because of its role in serotonin production, 5-HTP is sometimes viewed as a useful supplement for people with fibromyalgia.
Although research is limited, some studies suggest that using a 5-HTP supplement may reduce the severity of fibromyalgia symptoms.
For example, one study found that people with primary fibromyalgia syndrome experienced real improvements in clinical parameters after using 5-HTP.Another found that people who used a 5-HTP supplement experienced improvements in anxiety, quality of sleep, fatigue and pain.
Despite these findings, it’s important to keep in mind that most studies into 5-HTP as a potential treatment for fibromyalgia are small in scale, with published research several decades old.
As such, we’ll likely need to see more research — and preferably higher quality, larger studies — before we know more about the potential benefits of 5-HTP for people with fibromyalgia.
Migraines are severe, recurring headaches that can cause throbbing or pulsing pain. They’re likely caused at least in part by genetic factors and can be triggered by issues such as anxiety, stress and exposure to strong smells or loud noises.
Although experts haven’t yet established a strong link between the two, research suggests that low levels of serotonin may be involved in the development of migraines.
Because of its effects on serotonin levels, 5-HTP is sometimes promoted as a natural treatment for migraines.
Several studies have found that 5-HTP can reduce the severity of migraine symptoms, in some cases by as much as well-known migraine medications.
For example, one study found that the use of a 5-HTP supplement produced similar improvements in migraine symptoms and pain sensation to methysergide, a medication that’s commonly used to treat migraines and cluster headaches.
A different double-blind cross-over study found that 5-HTP was more effective at reducing the severity and frequency of headaches than a placebo, although the differences were small and statistically insignificant.
It’s worth noting that most of the research on 5-HTP’s potential anti-migraine effects is several decades old, with little new research available. However, 5-HTP might be worth considering if you’re prone to migraines and would like to try a natural, readily-available supplement.
5-HTP is generally taken on a daily basis. Currently, there’s no high-quality research showing if it’s better to take it in the morning, afternoon or at night. Since 5-HTP usually comes in capsule or tablet form, it’s easy to take it with a glass of water.
As a dietary supplement rather than a medication, there’s no exact approved 5-HTP dosage for depression, sleep problems or other common uses. Most adults who use 5-HTP take a dosage of 150 to 800mg per day.
Try to follow the instructions provided with your 5-HTP supplement as closely as possible while you use this supplement. Like with other dietary supplements, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider before you start taking 5-HTP.
5-HTP supplements are usually safe when they’re taken at the recommended dosage. However, like with all supplements, it’s possible to develop side effects while using 5-HTP, including some that may be severe or unpleasant if you take high doses or use this supplement frequently.
Common side effects of 5-HTP include:
Sexual function issues
When 5-HTP is taken at an excessive dose, it may become unsafe. Doses of six grams or more of 5-HTP per day have been associated with adverse reactions such as severe digestive issues and muscle spasms.
As a precursor of serotonin, 5-HTP may cause or contribute to excess serotonin levels when it’s used with medications or supplements that also increase serotonin. This can cause a potentially serious issue called serotonin syndrome.
5-HTP may also interact with the medications carbidopa (sold as Lodosyn®) and sedatives used to treat anxiety, sleep disorders and as anesthetics.
To reduce your risk of experiencing interactions or other adverse effects, talk to your healthcare provider about any over-the-counter or prescription medications and/or dietary supplements you currently use or have recently used before using 5-HTP.
Although uncommon, there have been some reports of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), a rare inflammatory disorder, in people who have used tryptophan and 5-HTP supplements.
Currently, experts aren’t sure if these reactions were caused by 5-HTP or by contaminants used in some tryptophan and/or 5-HTP supplements.
Currently, there isn’t enough high-quality scientific research on 5-HTP to know if it’s safe to use while pregnant. There’s also limited information available about the safety of using 5-HTP while breastfeeding.
If you’re currently pregnant or breastfeeding, or plan to become pregnant in the near future, it’s best to avoid using 5-HTP. Talk to your healthcare provider if you use 5-HTP and have either become pregnant or started breastfeeding recently.
5-HTP is a promising dietary supplement, with several studies showing that it may offer benefits for depression, anxiety, sleep problems and issues such as fibromyalgia.
However, 5-HTP isn’t a medication, and while it may be helpful for some people, it shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for evidence-based treatments for depression.
If you think you may have depression, you can seek expert help using our online mental health services, including our psychiatry service. You’ll receive expert care and, if appropriate, proven medication to help you control your symptoms, make progress and feel better.
You can also communicate directly with a licensed therapist from your home whenever you feel like you need help using our online therapy services.
Want to learn more before taking action? You can find out more about dealing with depression with our free mental health content and resources, or learn about medications that may be able to help you in our detailed guide to the best medications for depression.