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Teenage Depression & 5-HTP

author image Canaan Downs
Canaan Downs began working as a grant writer for nongovernmental organizations in 2003. While in the Himalayas, he managed the Tibetan Medical Digitalization Project, and he also writes for "The Climber" magazine, the "New Zealand Alpine Journal" and 27Crags.com. Downs received his Master of Arts in religious studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
Teenage Depression & 5-HTP
Teenage depression should never be left untreated. Photo Credit Purestock/Purestock/Getty Images

Teenage depression is medically identical to adult depression, according to MayoClinic.com. Nonetheless, coping with depression as a teenager can pose a different set of challenges than those faced by adults. Since depression can cause long-term cognitive deficits if left untreated, it is important to talk to a medical specialist about counseling and medication for your child. 5-HTP, a substance found naturally in the human body, has been used for more than 20 years to treat minor-to-moderate depression; however, more evidence is needed to conclusively determine its efficacy in adults and teens.

5-HTP and Serotonin

Although the neuroscience of depression can not be reduced to a single molecule, it can be stated that nearly every pharmaceutical treatment for depression works in part by increasing synaptic serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found throughout the body which plays an important role in regulating biological process as wide-ranging as digestion and body temperature. It is best known, however, for its role in maintaining a healthy mood. As deficits in synaptic serotonin are consistently correlated with depression in both teenagers and adults, nearly all treatments for teenage depression attempt to increase the levels of this neurotransmitter in the brain. Unlike pharmaceutical antidepressants, 5-HTP does not prevent the destruction or re-absorption of serotonin by the body; instead, it serves as a basic building block for the neurotransmitter, theoretically permitting the body to manufacture more.


According to a review of 5-HTP research by the University of Maryland Medical Center, several studies have concluded that it may be as effective as some pharmaceutical antidepressants in the treatment of moderate depression. In a study where the 5-HTP was compared with the selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor fluvoxamine, both treatments were found to be equally effective, although 5-HTP had fewer side-effects. However, this research needs to be repeated in larger studies for the findings to be considered conclusive. There are currently no studies that research the effects of 5-HTP exclusively in teenagers.


There is a low incidence of side-effects with 5-HTP when taken in normal doses. These side-effects are generally mild, and may include heartburn, gas, nausea, or loss of appetite. People who are pregnant or nursing should not take 5-HTP, as elevated neurotransmitter levels may impact fetal and early childhood development. Although a study by the National Institutes of Health concluded that antidepressants do not cause an increase in suicidal thoughts in teens, it is nonetheless worth noting that many antidepressant drugs may cause suicidal ideation. By contrast, 5-HTP is not generally associated with an increase in suicidal thoughts in teens or adults.

Drug Interactions

When combined with many antidepressant drugs, 5-HTP can produce potentially fatal side-effects. MedlinePlus lists possible interactions with drugs in the SSRI, MAOi, and tricyclic antidepressant families, as well as tramadol, demerol, and pentazocine. 5-HTP is also suspected of interacting with cough suppressants containing dextromethorphan. Consequently, it is important to talk to your doctor before starting your teen on a 5-HTP treatment regimen. Unlike 5-HTP, however, many pharmaceutical antidepressant drugs interact dangerously with alcohol. Since teens are at a greater risk of consuming alcohol under the influence peer pressure, it is important to assess the risks of these medications.

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