If you've noticed the number on the scale creeping upward and your pants fitting tighter, you're not alone. People gain weight as they age, due to fluctuating hormone levels, reduced activity and increased stress -- and many turn to supplements to help stave off the advancing middle-age spread. A chemical called 5-HTP has been shown to help reduce weight gain and even promote weight loss by increasing serotonin levels in the brain -- similar to the popular diet pill D-fenfluramine, but safer. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements.
Tryptophan and Serotonin
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning your body must get it from the food you eat. Once ingested, your body turns tryptophan into 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, which then gets converted into serotonin. Tryptophan supplements were taken off the market in 1989 after a contaminant scare, but the newer generation of those supplements skip the initial conversion step and supply straight 5-HTP in pill form. These supplements have been studied for a variety of ailments, but some of the most promising results have been in the area of weight loss.
5-HTP has been marketed as a fitness supplement, but it is a fat-burner, not a muscle-builder. In fact, if gaining bulk is your goal, 5-HTP will work against you. To gain weight, your body needs a caloric surplus every day -- 5-HTP has been shown to increase satiety and reduce appetite. The University of Maryland Medical Center says that people who took 5-HTP during a particular study ate less without trying, and lost two percent of their body weight without dieting -- and another 3 percent when they were.
Serotonin has long been studied as it relates to obesity, and antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are frequently prescribed off-label as weight loss drugs. Serotonin is the chemical in your brain that regulates your mood and behavior, and restoring normal levels can lead to a decrease in emotional eating, better sleep, reduced appetite and greater inclination to exercise, all of which are necessary for long-term weight loss. A 2006 report in the "Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences" stated that sibutramine, a particular SSRI, is the only centrally acting drug that can treat obesity long-term. The more recent research into 5-HTP suggests that supplementation with this amino acid product may lead to a similar result.
The recommended dose of 5-HTP is between 50 and 150 mg per day, according to UMMC, but many weight loss studies used higher doses. Since 5-HTP can be dangerous at high doses, talk to your doctor to determine the best course of treatment for you. Many medications can interact negatively with 5-HTP, including antidepressants, migraine medications and tramadol. To increase your natural levels of 5-HTP without supplements, eat more tryptophan-containing foods like turkey, milk, pumpkin and seaweed.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)
- "Current Drug Targets"; Serotonin (5-HT) Drugs: Effects on Appetite Expression and Use for the Treatment of Obesity; Halford JC, et al.; March 2005
- "Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences"; Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibition and Eating Behavior; Hainer V, et al.; November 2006