The Natural Happy Pill - Why haven't we heard more about it?
Serotonin boosting antidepressants undoubtedly have a positive effect on many cases of depression - but not all. More worrying is the host of unpleasant side effects that they can cause and it is here that the natural supplement 5-HTP could play an important role.
So why haven’t we heard more about it?
It’s possible that 5-HTP may sound vaguely familiar. Before it became more widely available in the 1990’s a related substance called tryptophan, was popular as a mood-boosting and sleep-enhancing supplement. But in 1998 disaster struck tryptophan sales in the US when a number of people fell seriously ill from a flu like disease called eosinophelia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). One of the things they all had in common was that they had used tryptophan supplements.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a knee-jerk reaction and banned tryptophan supplements without further ado, despite the fact that they had been widely used for decades without negative effects. Only later did independent researchers reveal what caused the sudden outbreak of EMS and not surprisingly, it had nothing to do with the tryptophan itself.
In an attempt to increase profits, a single Japanese manufacturer and exporter of tryptophan cut corners by introducing an untested strain of bacteria into the manufacturing process. This money grabbing tactic backfired horribly; it not only caused the contamination of the product but also the illness of many people who took it. However the dye was cast and tryptophan’s reputation as a supplement was ruined. Despite proof of its innocence the FDA kept tryptophan on its banned list for years. The silver lining was that this set the stage for the emergence of 5-HTP.
How are Tryptophan and 5-HTP related?
Both 5-HTP and tryptophan are amino acids, which means they are produced through the breakdown of protein. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid which means it’s needed for the body to function normally, although the body cannot produce it by itself. Our supply of tryptophan needs to come from food sources, like milk and turkey, or from supplements taken in a capsule form.
Your body can produce 5-HTP by itself but it needs tryptophan to do so. In fact this is the first of three distinctions between 5-HTP and tryptophan that makes 5-HTP a more effective serotonin booster. 5-HTP is an immediate precursor of serotonin, which means the body uses 5-HTP directly as a raw material to produce serotonin. Tryptophan on the other hand is a precursor of 5-HTP. So the body extracts tryptophan from protein, turns it into 5-HTP and then uses the 5-HTP to make serotonin.
Secondly 5-HTP is used only to make serotonin and nothing else, whereas tryptophan is also involved in other chemical processes in the body. Effectively you would need a larger dose of tryptophan to achieve the same serotonin boosting effect.
Thirdly 5-HTP is better at crossing the blood brain barrier where brain cells can turn it into serotonin.
5-HTP versus SSRI’s
Both SSRIs and 5-HTP increase the amount of serotonin at specific sites in the brain. Although both make more serotonin more available, they do so in different ways.
SSRIs interfere with a natural process – they inhibit nerve cells from re-absorbing excess serotonin that was released earlier. This leaves more serotonin behind for binding to serotonin receptors. 5-HTP on the other hand enhances a natural process – it boosts serotonin creation by the body itself, by providing the raw material for the manufacturing process.
That’s why reasonable doses of 5-HTP produce far fewer of the unpleasant side effects that can be associated with SSRIs, such as loss of libido and unwanted weight gain. In fact in one key head to head study, 5-HTP was found to be just as effective as the SSRI Fluvoxamine for relieving depression symptoms while producing fewer side effects1.
If 5-HTP is as effective as a conventional anti-depressant, one cannot help but wonder why it hasn’t made it into the mainstream as an effective alternative. The answer is money.
The Power Of Patentability
The fact that there is very little financial support behind researching the benefits of 5-HTP as an alternative is blatantly obvious from the scientific literature. In 2002 the respected Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews looked at over 100 previous studies on both 5-HTP and tryptophan2. Sadly only two studies covering a total of 64 people met the research criteria set by the reviewers. It’s no surprise because large scale studies that adhere to high scientific standards cost money. The only companies who have enough cash in hand to sponsor such studies are the pharmaceutical companies that hope to earn their investment back by patenting artificially manufactured medicine such as an SSRI and selling it exclusively.
5-HTP cannot be patented. It occurs naturally outside of the body in the seeds of the West African plant Griffonia simplicifolia. Nonetheless, the Cochrane researchers did find enough evidence to confirm that both 5-HTP and tryptophan relieves the symptoms of depression more effectively than a placebo, which according to another more recent study – happens in about only half the studies done on conventional antidepressants3.
This second review was published in 2006 in the journal Pharmacology and Therapeutics and looked at 27 studies of only 5-HTP. Again the researchers were concerned about the small scale of the studies they reviewed but they also understood why this was the case. “Unfortunately because 5-HTP is a dietary supplement not a prescription pharmaceutical, there is comparatively very little financial incentive for the extensive clinical research as to its efficacy and safety for depression”.
But despite the obvious needs for larger studies their conclusion is telling: “5-HTP supplementation deserves to be reconsidered as a possible significant addition to the anti-depressant armamentarium.”
1. Poldinger W, Clanchini B, Schwarts W. A functional-dimensional approach to depression: serotonin deficiency as a target syndrome in a comparison of 5-HTP and Fluvoxamine. Psychopathology 1991, 24:53-81
2. Shaw K, Turner J, Del Marc C. Tryptophan and 5-HTP for depression. Cocrane DatabaseSyst Rev 2002
3. Turner RH, Loftis JM, Blackwell AD. Serotonin A la carte supplementation with the serotonin precursor 5-HTP. Pharmacol Ther. Mar 2006; 109(3):325-338
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