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In New Zealand, as in the US and Europe, a new supplement is available to treat depression, insomnia, migraines or obesity: 5-HTP.  But it's not approved for use in Australia, where its close chemical cousin, the amino acid tryptophan, can be prescribed instead.

What it is?

The nutrient 5-HTP, short for 5-hydroxytryptophan, is a derivative of the amino acid tryptophan, which is found in such high-protein foods as beef, chicken, fish and dairy products.  The body makes 5-HTP from the tryptophan contained in food.  It's also in the seeds of an African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia, from which 5-HTP supplements are made.

The focus of much recent interest, 5-HTP acts on the brain, helping to elevate mood, promote sleep and weight loss, and relieve migraines, among other effects.  Unlike many other supplements (and drugs) that contain substances with molecules too large to pass from the blood-stream into the brain, 5-HTP is small enough to enter the brain.  Once there, it is converted into a vital nervous-system chemical, or neurotransmitter, called serotonin.  Although it affects many parts of the body, serotonin's most important actions take place in the brain, where it influences everything from mood to appetite to sleep.

Because it's closely related to tryptophan, 5-HTP remains somewhat controversial.  In 1989, tryptophan supplements (used for many of the same purposes) were banned in the US after reports of a fatal illness among those taking them.  The illness was later found to be caused by contamination of the supplement during manufacture, not by the tryptophan itself.  Since 1994, 5-HTP has been sold over the counter in the US as an alternative to tryptophan.  Safety concerns have been raised, though many experts believe that 5-HTP is both safe and effective.  It's also sold over the counter in New Zealand, but is not approved for use in Australia, where holistic medical practitioners prescribe tryptophan instead.  Tryptophan is now being manufactured more safely, and most of the guidelines for use apply to both supplements.  In both Australia and New Zealand, products containing 100 mg or more of L-tryptophan per recommended daily dose are available only on prescription.

What it does?

In recent years, 5-HTP has been studied as a treatment for such mood disorders as depression, anxiety and panic attacks because it can boost levels of serotonin in the brain.  Scientists are also investigating whether it may work for other complaints linked to low serotonin levels, such as migraines, fibromyalgia, obesity, eating disorders, PMS, and even violent behavior.  Although additional research is needed, preliminary studies suggest that it may be very beneficial for some of these conditions.

Major Benefits

For decades, European doctors have been prescribing 5-HTP for the treatment of depression and insomnia.  In some cases, it may be more effective, lift depression more quickly and produce fewer side effects than standard anti-depressant drugs.  In one study, more than half of the patients who suffered from long-standing depression and were resistant to all other anti-depressants felt better after taking 5-HTP.  The nutrient has also been shown to promote sleep, and to improve the quality of sleep, by increasing the amount of time people spend in two key sleep stages: deep sleep and REM sleep (the dreaming stage).  After dreaming longer, those on 5-HTP awaken feeling more rested and refreshed.

Additional Benefits

People trying to lose weight or suffering from migraines may benefit from 5-HTP.  In one study, overweight women who took the supplement consumed fewer kilo joules, lose more weight and were more likely to feel full while on a diet than those given a placebo.  5-HTP may also help to relieve severe headaches, including migraines, reducing their frequency, intensity and duration.

The supplement may also increase pain tolerance in those with fibromyalgia, a chronic condition marked by aches and fatigue, in part by helping to relieve any underlying depression.  In a recent Italian study of 200 fibromyalgia sufferers, those who took 5-HTP with conventional anti-depressants had less pain than those receiving either 5-HTP or the drugs alone.  If you're taking anti-depressants, don't try 5-HTP without consulting your doctor first.  Adverse reactions can occur.

Common Uses

  • Relieves depression.
  • Helps to overcome insomnia.
  • Aids weight control.
  • Treats migraines.
  • May ease pain of fibromyalgia.


  • Capsule.
  • Tablet.


  • 5-HTP is not approved for use in Australia.
  • Consult your doctor if you're taking a conventional anti-depressant.  The combination of 5-HTP with those medications can cause anxiety, confusion, rapid heart rate, sweating, diarhhoea or other adverse reactions.
  • Do not drive or do hazardous work until you determine how 5-HTP affects you.  It can cause drowsiness in some people.
  • 5-HTP may exacerbate asthma.
  • Reminder:  If you have a medical or psychiatric condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.

How to take it?


The recommended dosage for depression and most other ailments is 50-100 mg three times a day.

For migraines:  Take up to 100 mg three times a day if necessary.

For insomnia:  Take a single 100 mg dose half hour before bedtime.  When using 5-HTP, it's a good idea to begin with a low dose (such as 50 mg) and gradually increase it if needed.

Guidelines for use:

To assure rapid absorption, take 5-HTP on an empty stomach.  For weight control, take the supplement 30 minutes before meals.  Don't use 5-HTP for more than three months without your doctor's approval.  Some doctors combine it with the mood-enhancing herb St. John's wort, but you should not take it with that herb, or with conventional anti-depressants, except under medical supervision.

Possible side effects

The generally mild side effects include nausea, constipation, flatulence, drowsiness and a reduced sex drive.  Nausea usually diminishes within a few days.

Shopping Hints

  • In New Zealand, 5-HTP is available in 50 mg and 100 mg strengths.  The smaller dose can be used to increase your intake gradually, minimizing your risk of suffering side effects.
  • Even though a product is labeled 5-HTP, it may include additional herbs or nutrients that you don't need.  Carefully check the ingredient list on the label to make sure you know what you're getting.

Latest Findings

  • Although recent US reports of adverse reactions in a few people taking 5-HTP have raised safety concerns, additional study is needed to determine whether these rare reactions are linked to possible contaminants in the supplement.  Many experts have found 5-HTP to be safe and effective for large numbers of people.
  • In a recent US study, 20 obese people too either 5-HTP or a placebo for 12 weeks.  During the first six weeks, they ate anything they wanted.  Over the second six weeks, they restricted their daily diet to 5000 kilojoules.  Those on 5-HTP lost 5.5 kilogram for the placebo group.