Sleeping less and gaining more? There have been recent studies that show why. Two hormones responsible for stimulating and suppressing your appetite and increasing your metabolism have been flagged as being disrupted if insomnia persists. And if insomnia becomes chronic, depression can set in. After all, who doesn’t give in to cravings, get cranky, and foggy-headed when they’re not sleeping properly?
Fortunately, 5-HTP effectively handles all three of these problems; it handles weight gain as an appetite suppressant, decreases the incidence of insomnia by acting as a natural sleep aid and helps to lift the symptoms of mild depression. 5-Hydroxy L-Tryptophan, or 5-HTP, is created naturally in the body from tryptophan; the same amino acid that serotonin (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter) and melatonin (a sleep cycle regulating hormone) spring from. 5-HTP helps people living with fibromyalgia by relieving their symptoms, possibly because tryptophan helps transfer nerve impulses from one cell to another. It has also been shown to be of benefit to people living with anxiety disorders, eating disorders and excessive symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS). Some studies have shown that 5-HTP helps reduce the severity and duration of chronic migraines. 5-HTP also helps promote a healthy mood balance which, in turn, is less likely to leave you feeling like you want to raid the fridge or clean out the nearest fast food restaurant.
HOW 5-HTP WORKS
5-HTP occurs naturally in the body and is used in the biosynthesis of the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin from the amino acid tryptophan. Neurotransmitters are chemicals which transmit signals from one nerve cell, across a synapse (a gap between cells), to another or from one nerve cell to a muscle cell. Other examples of neurotransmitters include acetylcholine (found in the nervous system), dopamine (found in the brain), GABA (found in the brain) and norepinephrine (endocrine system).
With the help of vitamin B6, 5-HTP is chemically altered or decarboxylated (has a carbon atom removed from a carbon chain) to create serotonin both in nervous tissue and the liver. Of the approximately 40 million brain cells, most are influenced either directly or indirectly by serotonin. This includes brain cells related to mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation and some social behaviour. 1 It is because of this direct connection as a chemical precursor to the increase in serotonin, our “feel-good” neurotransmitter, that 5-HTP is thought to be beneficial in treating conditions such as depression, as it is commonly understood that one element of depression is a lack of circulating serotonin.
A MOMENTARY SIDETRIP TO SEROTONIN
As a precursor, 5-HTP is important, but as noted above, serotonin touches many aspects of our biological processes so it’s important to understand how to maintain adequate levels of serotonin. Since there is no way to measure serotonin levels in the brain and body, all we can do is maintain a healthy lifestyle and have regular check-ins with our primary health care provider when something goes amiss.
Diet can influence serotonin production, but only in a round-about kind of way. There are no foods that directly increase your body’s levels of serotonin. However, there are foods that can supply you with the precursor for making serotonin, tryptophan, such as chicken, turkey, dairy and nuts.
But there’s another glitch; levels of both tryptophan and serotonin drop after eating a meal packed with protein. Why? According to nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, when you eat a high-protein meal, you “flood the blood with both tryptophan and its competing amino acids,” all fighting for entry into the brain. That means only a small amount of tryptophan gets through — and serotonin levels don’t rise.
But eat a carbohydrate-rich meal, and your body triggers a release of insulin. This, Somer says, causes any amino acids in the blood to be absorbed into the body — but not the brain. Except for, you guessed it — tryptophan! It remains in the bloodstream at high levels following a carbohydrate meal, which means it can freely enter the brain and cause serotonin levels to rise, she says. So eat a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with a glass of milk and feel better fast!
What can also help: Getting an adequate supply of vitamin B-6, which can influence the rate at which tryptophan is converted to serotonin. 3
CONDITIONS WHICH BENEFIT FROM 5-HTP
Health Canada’s monograph on 5-HTP states its uses as the following:
- Helps to promote healthy mood balance (Pöldinger et al. 1991; Zmilacher et al. 1988; Nakajima et al. 1978).
- Helps to relieve symptoms of fibromyalgia (Nicolodi and Sicuteri 1996; Sarzi Puttini and Caruso 1992; Caruso et al. 1990).
- Helps to reduce the severity and duration of migraine headaches when taken as a prophylactic (Titus et al. 1986; Bono et al. 1984; Sicuteri 1973).
- To be used with a program of reduced intake of dietary calories and increased physical activity (if possible) to help in weight management by reducing carbohydrate cravings (Cangiano et al. 1998; Cangiano et al. 1992; Ceci et al. 1989).
- Used as a sleep aid (Soulairac and Lambinet 1977; Wyatt et al. 1971).2
What causes mood swings? The answers are many and complicated but one commonly agreed-upon stimulus is a lack of serotonin. When levels are low, mild depression, sleepless nights, anxious feelings, worry, upset and mood swings may all begin to appear. Because 5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin, it may help relieve mood swings by supplying the body with the ingredients it needs to increase levels of serotonin. Take 5-HTP with a full glass of water before meals. Talk to your primary health care provider about the doseage. It’s best to take a pure form of 5-HTP with no other ingredients such as chamomile, hops or Valerian.
Fibromyalgia is also associated with low serotonin levels; bad news when it comes to pain. Serotonin levels may have a direct role to play in lessening the transmission of pain signals and if your levels are low, pain signals can get through. The more serotonin present, the less vulnerable you are to pain. Also of consideration are endorphin levels; something which 5-HTP can have a direct effect on. Endorphins are chemically related to morphine, the body’s natural pain reliever. Studies have been done with regard to 5-HTP’s ability to increase endorphin levels by increasing serotonin, which regulates the production and release of endorphins. 5
As with fibromyalgia, some types of persistent headaches appear to be the result of low serotonin. It’s best to check with your primary health care provider to determine exactly what is causing your headaches as there are many different classes of headaches. For example, vascular headaches result from excessive dilation of blood vessels in the head (migraines are a form of vascular headache). The telltale sign of this type of headache is the “pounding” that can be felt as the blood tried to flow through the constricted vessels. Researchers at the University of Milan’s Pain Research and Treatment Unit found that 77.4 to 93.5 percent of people with chronic daily headaches get better when they take 5-HTP. The study lasted two months, and results continued to improve the longer 5-HTP was taken. 6
4. Weight Management
A number of scientifically controlled clinical studies have shown 5-HTP to be effective in weight loss programs. One such study at the University of Rome evaluated the effects of 5-HTP (300 mg three times daily) on the eating habits and weight loss programs of 20 overweight female patients.
The twelve-week study period was divided into two six-week sections. During the first six weeks, the patients took either 5-HTP or placebo, but no dietary restrictions were placed on them. In the second six-week period, the patients were placed on a 1200-calorie per day diet, while continuing to take either the 5-HTP or placebo.
Those in the placebo group did not experience significant weight loss in either of the two periods, while the subjects in the 5-HTP group showed significant weight loss in both the first period and the second period. The placebo group also did not show significant change in their calorie intake, even in the second period when instructed to reduce food intake, while the 5-HTP group had a significant spontaneous dietary intake reduction during the first period, from 3220 calories per day to 1879 calories per day, with carbohydrate intake falling by 50 percent. During the second period, the calorie intake of the 5-HTP group decreased further, to 1268 calories per day, with further reductions in carbohydrates.
The researchers interpreted these findings as supporting the theory that 5-HTP decreased carbohydrate cravings and binge eating, even in the absence of a structured diet. 7
5. Sleep Aid
Serotonin is converted into melatonin in the pineal gland in the brain and melatonin is the hormone which helps regulate sleep cycles by signaling the return of darkness. Because 5-HTP is one of the building blocks necessary for serotonin production, 5-HTP gives the body more of what it needs to make serotonin, which in turn means the body has adequate amounts to produce melatonin.
Because 5-HTP is so effective, it should not be used if taking any of the following:
- Anti-depressant drugs
- Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s e.g., Prozac)
- Tricyclic medications
- Weight Loss medications (i.e., dextenfluramine)
- Anti-parkinson medications (e.g., L-dopa)
- Barbiturates and other tranquilizing drugs
- Antihistamines and cold medications
- Alcoholic beverages
- Intravenous (illegal I.V.) drugs
- Cancer Chemotherapy
- Antibiotic Medications
Serotonin syndrome is a potentially life threatening drug reaction that causes the body to have too much serotonin. Serotonin syndrome most often occurs when two drugs that affect the body’s level of serotonin are taken together at the same time. The drugs cause too much serotonin to be released or to remain in the brain area. Drugs of abuse, such as ecstasy and LSD have also been associated with serotonin syndrome.
Symptoms occur within minutes to hours, and may include:
- Agitation or restlessness
- Fast heart beat
- Increased body temperature
- Loss of coordination
- Overactive reflexes
- Rapid changes in blood pressure
- Vomiting 4
NUTTER’S CAN SUGGEST…
Scientists and researchers have found a natural supplement that will safely and efficiently boost serotonin levels and reduce depression, obesity, insomnia, migraine headaches, and anxiety – enteric coated 5-HTP. Considerable scientific evidence indicates that low serotonin levels are linked to a number of common conditions, including depression, obesity, fibromyalgia and headaches. There is excellent documentation that 5-HTP is an effective antidepressant agent.
2. Health Canada, Drugs and Health Products, Monograph – 5-HTP
4. PubMed Health
Primary fibromyalgia syndrome and 5-hydroxy-L-tryptophan: a 90-day open study.
Serotonin precursors in chronic primary headache. A double-blind cross-over study with L-5-hydroxytryptophan vs. placebo.
Eating behaviour and adherence to dietary prescriptions in obese adult subjects treat with 5-hydroxytryptophan.
Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 12 years experience in her area of expertise, natural health and wellness, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch Practitioner, and Reflexologist.
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