The chemical precursor 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, is derived from the essential amino acid, tryptophan, which is obtained through food. After tryptophan converts to 5-HTP, it then is converted to another chemical, serotonin. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter in the brain which regulates mood and behavior and may have a positive effect on sleep, appetite, anxiety and the sensation of pain.
Even though it takes tryptophan to make 5-HTP in the body, eating foods high in tryptophan does not increase 5-HTP levels much. Most 5-HTP is obtained through dietary supplements which come from the seeds of an African plant called griffonia simplifolia. 5-HTP has been used to treat depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, migraines and other headaches, obesity and hot flashes. Most studies have been small but have shown some positive results.
A study by Cangiano, et al., published in the "Journal of Clinical Nutrition" in 1992 followed 20 obese patients who were assigned to intervention or placebo groups. No diet was prescribed during the first six-week period and a low-calorie diet was prescribed for the second. Placebo participants did not lose weight, but those on 5-HTP lost 2 percent of their body weight during the non-diet period and an additional 3 percent on the diet. They also experienced quicker satiety. Another study by Cangiano, et al., published in 1998 in the "International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders" followed 20 overweight adults with type-II diabetes and found that using 750 mg per day of 5-HTP resulted in a 4 1/2 lb. weight loss over two weeks. Using 5-HTP reduced carbohydrate intake by 75 percent.
In addition to weight loss, 5-HTP has been studied for other conditions, most notably, depression. Poldinger, et al. in a 1991 issue of "Psychopathology" reported that people given 5-HTP as treatment for depression did just as well as those receiving the SSRI, Luvox. The 5-HTP group also experienced fewer side effects than those taking Luvox. Other studies have found improvements using 5-HTP with fibromyalgia, headaches and hot flashes. Most of these studies have been small, and further research is needed.
In 1989, a contaminant called Peak X was found in tryptophan supplements. Because of the belief that an outbreak of eosinophilic myalgia syndrome, or EMS, a potentially fatal disorder affecting blood, skin, muscle and organs, could be traced to the contaminated tryptophan, all trypophan supplements were taken off the shelves by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Since that time Peak X has been found in some 5-HTP supplements and there have been a few reports of EMS associated with taking 5-HTP. The levels were not high enough to cause symptoms unless very high doses were taken. Still, you should talk to your doctor before taking 5-HTP and make sure your source comes from a reliable manufacturer.