The amino acids 5-HTP and L-tryptophan are essential to healthy brain activity. Since tryptophan was pulled off of shelves in the United States for safety concerns, its close relative, 5-HTP has taken up the mantle as a reputed natural sleep aid and antidepressant. These claims have their cynics, and many doctors reminding us that taking amino acid supplements is tantamount to playing with brain chemistry, and some safety issues remain unknown.
Brain Chemistry 101
Once digested, both 5-HTP and tryptophan are precursors to melatonin, which in turn is converted into serotonin. This neurotransmitter wears many hats, including regulating the sleep/wake cycle, hunger and emotional balance. So taking 5-HTP or eating foods rich in tryptophan increases serotonin levels, possibly leading to sounder sleep and improved mood for some people.
Use as Sleep Aid
Insomnia, or the recurrent problem of getting enough quality sleep, plagues the health of millions of people around the world. Because 5-HTP and tryptophan, where available, induce sleepiness, many people take these supplements to combat sleeplessness. However, the effectiveness of these amino acids in treating insomnia remains unproven, although some preliminary evidence exists that 5-HTP may help with mild insomnia. Other lifestyle changes, such as reducing caffeine and listening to meditation or relaxation music, may be more effective, and certainly are safer.
Use for Depression
European doctors have prescribed 5-HTP for depression. In a 2002 study, researchers from the University of Oxford tested both tryptophan and 5-HTP for depression, and concluded that these substances are more effective than placebo. However, they also concluded that their clinical use remains limited because more effective medicines are available that do not have unknown safety risks.
In 1989, L-tryptophan was pulled off shelves in the United States due to a related outbreak of eosinophilia–myalgia syndrome, a deadly disease that affects muscles and organ systems. Although the cause was found to be impurity-introduced from one facility, the FDA banned tryptophan permanently. 5-HTP has other powerful side effects as well including nausea, vomiting, high blood pressure and an increase in night terrors in children. People with a history of heart disease, kidney disease, ulcers and blood clotting diseases are advised to not take these supplements.
Tryptophan can be found in many natural food sources in safe levels. The best sources of tryptophan include brown rice, cottage cheese, peanuts, and sesame seeds, according to the Franklin Institute. Meats, including that famous turkey dinner, have tryptophan, as well. Many doctors suggest eating a high carbohydrate meal a couple hours before bed to help ease into sleep safely and naturally.