The psychoactive action of 5-HTP is derived from its increase in production of serotonin in central nervous system tissue.
Though 5-HTP is found in food only in insignificant quantities, it is a chemical involved intermediately in the metabolism of tryptophan, an amino acid found in milk, meat, potatoes, pumpkin, and various greens. See also the section Dietary sources of the article on L-tryptophan.
5-HTP is sold over-the-counter in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada as a dietary supplement for use as an antidepressant, appetite suppressant, and sleep aid. 5-HTP in supplement form is typically sold in 50 mg or 100 mg gelatin or vegetarian capsules. It is usually sourced from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia.
In 2001 a Cochrane Review of the effect of 5-HTP and tryptophan on depression was published. The authors included only studies of a high rigor and included both 5-HTP and tryptophan in their review because of the limited data on either. Of 108 studies of 5-HTP and tryptophan on depression published between 1966 and 2000, only two met the authors' quality standards for inclusion, totaling 64 study participants. The substances were more effective than placebo in the two studies included but the authors state that, "the evidence was of insufficient quality to be conclusive," and note, "because alternative antidepressants exist which have been proven to be effective and safe, the clinical usefulness of 5-HTP and tryptophan is limited at present."
5-HTP is often taken by people coming down from MDMA to relieve post-MDMA dysphoria. The basis for doing this is that 5-HTP is a necessary precursor for the brain to produce more serotonin, and MDMA use depletes a person's natural serotonin levels, thus taking 5-HTP after consuming MDMA is speculated as helping improve serotonin production. While the practice is common, the theory is physiologically reasonable, and anecdotal evidence is widespread, no scientifically verifiable evidence can currently be found to confirm whether the practice actually works. Concurrent use of 5-HTP and serotonin releasers such as MDMA increases the risk of serotonin syndrome; a possibly fatal condition.
Possible risks or side effects
Because 5-HTP has not been thoroughly studied in a clinical setting, possible side effects and interactions with other drugs are not well known. However, it is noteworthy that no published reports of serious side effects (from non-contaminated 5-HTP) exist, despite that 5-HTP is freely available as a nutraceutical.
Oral 5-HTP results in an increase in urinary 5-HIAA, a serotonin metabolite, indicating that 5-HTP is peripherally metabolized to serotonin, which is then metabolized. This might cause a false positive test in tests looking for carcinoid syndrome. Known drug interactions:
- When combined with antidepressants of the MAOI or SSRI class, high dose 5-HTP can cause acute serotonin syndrome in rats.
In humans 5-HTP has never been clinically associated with serotonin syndrome.
- When combined with carbidopa (as a treatment for symptoms of Parkinson's disease), 5-HTP causes nausea and vomiting; however this can be alleviated via administration of granisetron.
It has been suggested by the pharmaceutical industry that 5-HTP may cause eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), a serious condition which results in extreme muscle tenderness, myalgia, and blood abnormalities. However, there is evidence to show that EMS was caused by a contaminant in early 5-HTP supplements, before the introduction of the current Good Manufacturing Practices by the United States FDA in 2007. Many countries now employ similar regulation.