Boosting Your Happy Brain Chemistry with 5-HTP

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© Marnie Burkhart

© Marnie Burkhart

Many of us suffer from a variety of symptoms that we disregard as part of our personality or karma. You might think that it is just how things are, so you may as well accept it and deal with it as best as you can. Or perhaps it gets so tough, that you just can’t deal with it!

For instance, do you often…

  • Have problems falling asleep or staying asleep?
  • Find yourself edgy, irritable or angry?
  • Lack motivation or feel depressed most of the time?
  • Prefer to be left alone?
  • Have ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) in your head?
  • Worry, get anxious and find it difficult to concentrate or make decisions?
  • Have feelings of low self-esteem and lack of confidence?
  • Feel self-critical and guilty?
  • Tend to be shy or fearful?
  • Tend to be obsessive, inflexible, a control freak, or a work addict?
  • Particularly dislike the dark weather?
  • Have PMS or menopausal moodiness?
  • Have a sweet tooth or crave carbs and starchy snacks or alcohol?
  • Are all achy and/or have jaw pain?
  • Find some relief of all of these symptoms when you exercise…if you happen to get around it?
  • Do you have a family history of fibromyalgia and/or treatment with SSRIs (serotonin boosting antidepressants)?

These are all manifestations of serotonin deficiency. If you felt identified with some or all of them, then 5-HTP—an over the counter and natural supplement—can change your life forever.

5-HTP stands for 5-hydroxytryptophan, a form of the amino acid tryptophan which is found in foods like red meat, turkey, fish, or seeds. 5-HTP comes from the seeds of the African plant Griffonia simplicifolia and when taken correctly, it turns into serotonin—a brain chemical which regulates our sleep, raises our pain threshold, and elevates our mood.

We all have a right to healthy levels of serotonin, but we live in a highly stressful world where we are exposed to all kinds of toxins and pollutants, where our modern foods are often nutritionally deficient and toxic, and where people often have to turn to stimulants or anti-depressants in order to cope with life’s demands and stressful situations. We live in a world where life can be quite hard and nothing is certain except death. All of this takes a high toll on our serotonin levels, and thus on our bodies and our psychological well-being. In addition, genetic predispositions might leave you vulnerable to low levels of serotonin.  Helping the body to top up the serotonin tank when you are faced with a stressful situation is exactly what you might need.

5-HTP administration has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, binge eating, pain, and chronic headaches including migraines. Studies have revealed that it can work better than prescription medications at treating depression, and without the negative side effects!

We have more serotonin receptors in our intestinal tract than we do in our brain, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that low serotonin can also interfere with proper intestinal function. This is also the reason why 5-HTP can be beneficial in the treatment of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).

In order for our bodies to convert 5-HTP into serotonin, we need calcium, magnesium and B vitamins. Unfortunately, our dietary intake often doesn’t meet our body’s needs, so it is important to supplement ourselves with a good multivitamin containing at least 50-100mg of vitamin B6, and at least 700mg of magnesium chelate, citrate, or taurate.  5-HTP will turn itself into serotonin and then into melatonin, a natural sleep hormone and powerful anti-oxidant. In fact, 5-HTP can increase the body’s production of melatonin by 200%.

In general, an average of 300mg of 5-HTP per day is the recommended dose to restore your levels of serotonin, although quite often, some end up needing around 500mg per day. Start with 50 mg at lunch and dinner and increase your dose every 2 days by 50mg until you reach 300mg of 5-HTP per day.  If you are unable to have a restorative sleep after two weeks, then you can also consider increasing the dose or supplementing yourself with melatonin at night.

Potential side effects of 5-HTP include nausea, diarrhea, and sleepiness. Also, in very rare cases, there might be insomnia and headaches, which usually happen when 5-HTP is taken on an empty stomach and when a person has “sluggish” liver issues.  The good news is that when you take 5-HTP with meals and gradually increase the dose, these side effects should be eliminated.

If you don’t respond to 5-HTP, do more research and consult a doctor. 5-HTP is not a panacea, but it can help with the misery caused by stress-induced serotonin deficiency!

Note: It is practically impossible to reach a serotonin overdose, but a combination of 5-HTP and drugs like SSRIs (serotonin boosting antidepressants) and especially MAOI (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors) can result in an overdose. Please, do not take 5-HTP and these prescription drugs without consulting your physician first.


A frequently asked question is when to stop 5-HTP?  The important thing is that when you see that the 5-HTP is giving you (or you are having) symptoms that it is supposed to cure while you are taking it, you should stop the 5-HTP immediately. It means you don’t need it or you filled up your tank. Also, if you are getting too groggy or oversleepy, it is time to decrease the dose. Usually it just takes a few months – sometimes more depending on the individual – but you don’t have to take 5-HTP forever.

Further reading:

Michael Murray, N.D.  5-HTP: The Natural Way to Overcome Depression, Obesity, and Insomnia. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.

Dr. Rodger H. Murphree, Treating and Beating Anxiety and Depression with Orthomolecular Medicine. Birmingham: Harrison and Hamptom Publishing Inc., 2005.

Julia Ross, M.A. The Mood Cure. New York: Viking Penguin, 2002.

Dr. Rodger H. Murphree, Treating and Beating Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Birmingham: Harrison and Hamptom Publishing Inc., 2008.

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  1. Shangool  June 8, 2017

    Hello dear Gabriela
    5 htp is a great medicine for me since its a natural compound and the direct precursor to serotonin.
    I am glad that my l dopa supplement has finally arrived to me which is an excellent event because I feel like I have dopamine deficiency as well.
    I mix the two and meditate on them for some hours.
    But since I take them on empty stomach I feel very bad to the point that I vomit but let me mention that I feel the effects way stronger than when on full stomach.
    Here I have two questions that I want to ask you doctor :
    1.How can I minimize that vomiting kind of sensation anyhow ?
    2.Can you tell me what is the propper ratio of 5 htp to L dopa
    Since I feel serotoninergic effects a bit more than dopaminergic effects ?
    (I take 500 mg pure 5 htp in conjunction with 1000 mg pure
    L dopa.)

    I will be very greatfull If you reply.

    • Gabriela Segura, MD  June 9, 2017

      That sounds pretty crazy. First of all, you don’t take high doses of either together. I would start with the minimal dose and only if it is strictly necessary. Please notice that your vomiting because your body can’t take that dose.

  2. Kelsey  August 18, 2017

    I have been taking 300 mg of 5HTP for the last 2 weeks for depression and sleep problems. It helped my depression for the first 4 days, but then I was back feeling how I did before. But, it is amazing for my sleep! I have struggled with middle of the night insomnia for about 4 years, and this has totally helped. I am considering switching to L-tryptophan for depression, but I don’t want to miss out on the wonderful sleep outcomes. Any suggestions?

  3. Cami  April 4, 2018

    Thank u for this I have been taking 5 htp for the last 6 months but i heard u had to stop every 2 months for 2 weeks. Every time i do that my symptoms of insomnia hot flashes overeating come back. So are u saying it would be safe for me to take continuously until I get side effects that indicate my tank is full?

    • Gabriela Segura, MD  April 4, 2018

      It can be taken continually as long as the tank is being filled so to speak. Once you have opposite effects, you can wind down the dose gradually.

  4. Tracy Wardle  April 10, 2018

    Hi I’ve just started on 5hpt. I slept so well for 4 nights. But tonight I can’t sleep so I’ve took 400g. Is it safe to take that much?

  5. Christina  May 6, 2018

    Hello.. I’ve been taking 50mg for quite some time and just recently upped to 100mg and man what a nice difference… sleeping through the night now and waking up feeling much better. How long can I take this amount and do I ever have to stop?
    I’ve heard that the effects wear off over time.. is this true? Does the body eventually go back to making what we need naturally? I really don’t want to take mega does of anything… your reply will be very helpful. Thank you!

    • Gabriela Segura, MD  May 6, 2018

      You can take a break for a couple of months and restart if you have sleeping problems. 100mg per night is okay and if the effects wear off or if it gives you opposite effects, then you know you don’t need it anymore.


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