Is 5-HTP a safe, natural option for helping treat depression and anxiety by boosting serotonin?

A naturally occurring chemical in our body, called 5-HTP, has been shown to help treat depression with fewer side effects than conventional antidepressants.

Some studies show that supplementing higher than normal amounts of 5-HTP causes the brain’s serotonin-producing neurons (nerve cells) to increase production. This leads to more serotonin and improved mood.

While 5-HTP appears to be a promising treatment for depression, more research is needed to find its long-term side effects.

What is 5-HTP and how does it help treat depression?
What evidence is there that 5-HTP works for depression?
What are other uses of 5-HTP besides treating depression?
What are the side effects of 5-HTP?
Who should avoid or be cautious about taking 5-HTP?

What is 5-HTP and how does it help treat depression?

5-HTP, short for 5-hydroxytryptophan, is a chemical that helps raise serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter – a chemical that transmits signals between brain cells. Serotonin can affect many aspects of our lives, including mood, behavior, sleep, appetite, body temperature and sense of pain. Low serotonin levels can cause depression, anxiety, insomnia and other health problems.

Our bodies make 5-HTP naturally from the amino acid tryptophan. 5-HTP is then converted into serotonin. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. It’s important to note that taking 5-HTP is not the only natural way to boost serotonin — a great way is to do regular exercise.

5-HTP is not present in the foods we eat. The 5-HTP in supplements is from an African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia.

Good sources of tryptophan are meat (including turkey and chicken), fish, eggs, seeds, cheese, spirulina and seaweed.

Eating high-carbohydrate (or high-carb, for short) meals increase serotonin levels more than high-protein meals, according to Professor Richard Wurtman. Tryptophan competes badly with other amino acids, so little reaches the brain. When we eat high-carb foods, however, insulin is released into the bloodstream, which transports tryptophan into the brain. The solution is to eat foods high in tryptophan along with high-carb foods. Foods high in carbs include potatoes, bananas, grains, cereals, pasta and bread.

What evidence is there that 5-HTP works for depression?

A number of studies have tested 5-HTP for depression. Below are some key findings.

  • In the 1970s Professor Isamu Sano and colleagues, from Osaka University Medical School in Japan, gave 107 patients 50 to 300mg of 5-HTP a day. Within two weeks over half had improvements in their symptoms. By the end of the fourth week of the study nearly three-quarters of the patients said they had either complete relief or were much improved, with no side effects. Other researchers repeated the study. They found nearly 70 percent of patients improved their mood.
  • Dr Poldinger headed a double-blind study at the Basel University of Psychiatry. He gave 34 depressed volunteers either the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant fluvoxamine (Luvox) or 300mg of 5-HTP. Each person was assessed for how depressed they were. After six weeks both groups showed much improvement in their depression. Those taking 5-HTP, however, had more improvement in each of the four areas tested, which were depression, anxiety, insomnia and physical symptoms, plus the patient’s self-assessment.
  • The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) says some small studies show that 5-HTP may be as good as certain antidepressant drugs in treating people with mild-to-moderate depression. One study compared the effects of 5-HTP to Luvox in 63 people. The study found those given 5-HTP did just as well as those who received the SSRI. Those who took 5-HTP had fewer side effects than those who took Luvox. These studies were too small to say for sure if 5-HTP works, however, so more and larger studies are needed.

What are other uses of 5-HTP besides treating depression?

Studies show 5-HTP can help the following health problems besides depression:

  • insomnia
  • anxiety
  • headaches and migraines
  • overweight and obesity
  • fibromyalgia
  • Friedreich’s ataxia
  • LSD-induced psychosis

What are the side effects of 5-HTP?

Side effects from 5-HTP can include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • heartburn
  • stomach upset
  • constipation
  • gas
  • feelings of fullness
  • feeling tired
  • nightmares
  • reduced sex drive

High doses of 5-HTP are toxic and might cause serotonin syndrome, according to The UMMC. Although rare, this is a dangerous health problem in which there is too much serotonin in the body. It can cause mental changes, hot flashes, rapidly fluctuating blood pressure and heart rate, and coma. Talk to your doctor before taking high doses.

The long-term side effects of 5-HTP are unknown.

Who should avoid or be cautious about taking 5-HTP?

Approach 5-HTP with caution.

The UMMC says people with high blood pressure or diabetes should talk to their doctor before taking it.

People with liver disease, pregnant women and nursing mothers should not take 5-HTP.

Below is a list of medications The UMMC and/or WebMD list as possibly interacting with 5-HTP. If you’re on any of them, talk to your healthcare provider before considering taking 5-HTP. They can possibly interact with 5-HTP to cause health problems – and some can be serious.

  • Medication for depression (should not be taken with 5-HTP because it can combine to cause serotonin syndrome)
  • Carbidopa (Lodosyn)
  • Tramadol (Ultram)
  • Triptans: Naratriptan (Amerge), Sumatriptan (Imitrex), Rizatriptan (Maxalt) and Zolmitriptan (Zomig)
  • Dextromethorphan (Robitussin DM, and others)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Pentazocine (Talwin)

written by Nyomi Graef

5-HTP, 2009, WebMD,

5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), 2008, University of Maryland Medical Center,

5-Hydroxy Tryptophan (5-HTP) – Help or Hype? Can One Pill Cure Depression, Obesity and Insomnia?, 1998, ABC News,

Holford, P, 2003, Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, London, UK: Piatkus

Murray, M, 1999, 5-HTP: The Natural Way to Overcome Depression, Obesity, and Insomnia, New York, USA: Bantam

Sahelian, R, 1998, 5-HTP: Nature’s Serotonin Solution, New York, USA: Avery

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6 Responses to “Is 5-HTP a safe, natural option for helping treat depression and anxiety by boosting serotonin?”

  1. […] 5-HTP, fiber, green tea and essential fatty acids, as these have minimal side effects if any. …Is 5-HTP a safe, natural option for helping treat depression …While 5-HTP appears to be a promising treatment for depression, more research is needed to find its […]

  2. carolyn Reid says:

    could you please help me, i did purchase 5 HTP and i am afraid to take them, are they so dangerous, got them from Holland and Barrett, i have chronic insomnia since i was a child, in the past two years i experienced agoraphobia, panic attacks, anxiety.

    unfortunately i got asthma witch i never had before.

    I was put on xanax then lexapro, then the hospital put me on singular and an inhaler, also allergy medicine spray called avamys and allergy over the counter meds also sleeep meds with no interaction.

    i dont take lexapro or sleeping tables my decision any more, i take the other meds in the morning so i really need to know if it is safe to take them at night which would be hours apart, cant go on like this i have not slept in 24 hours, just need sleep want to be normal.

    Thank you

  3. Nyomi says:

    Hi Carolyn,

    Thanks for your comment. Sorry, I’m unable to diagnose and treat your health problems because I am not a medical doctor. I recommend that you visit a relevant health professional about your health problems. My website isn’t intended to diagnose particular health problems — it aims to inspire, empower, uplift and inform people.

    On a personal note, I have had insomnia on and off for years and it worsened when I felt very stressed. Once the stress reduced, the insomnia went away. I don’t know what’s causing your insomnia though – it might be stress and/or something else, but, then again, it might not be – so, once again, I recommend you see a relevant health professional. It’s a good idea to tell him or her your past history with insomnia, panic attacks etc and any medication/supplements/drugs etc you’ve been and are taking, and any past or current drug interactions you’ve had, i.e. similar to what you’ve done on this website, but more in-depth.

    I really hope you feel better soon. Hang in there — things can improve. Keep searching for the answers; seek and you shall find. It works for me (and many others) and it can work for you too.

    All the best

    Kind regards,

  4. carolyn Reid says:

    Hello Nyomi,

    Thank you for your very kind reply much appreciated.

    Also for telling me about your own experience with insonmia which you know is dreadful.

    Thanks again
    Carolyn Reid

  5. James H says:

    I’ve been taking Natrol 200 mg time release 5-htp for about two weeks now. I am ADD and I think suffer from depression as well. I take one a day and I feel much better, I am less impulsive, more calm, and sleep much better.

    However some side effects I have noticed is that I get acne and rashes, and my skin itches a lot especially on the neck, arms and chest. Also my gums seem to be more sensitive to cold water, flossing, and brushing. They bleed when I brush and floss. To me its all small price to pay for some peace of mind.

    However I am wondering if these side effects might be linked to a larger more concerning problem. What are your thoughts on this? I’ve heard about something called…is it EMS?

    I think that because of my ADD/Depression that my body should be able to easily tolerate 200 mg time released. Like its filling a void to make me more like other people. Or is it instead, that my body’s homeostasis is in fact at a lower level of serotonin than most and so any extra changes it?



  6. Nyomi says:

    Hello James,

    Thanks for visiting my website and taking the time to comment.

    I am sorry to hear about your symptoms; they sound very unpleasant. I strongly recommend that you see a relevant healthcare professional soon about these symptoms, and you get some medical tests done to see if you have any health problems that might be causing such symptoms.

    Sorry, I don’t know whether or not you have any health problems that are causing your symptoms. For various reasons I am unable to diagnose you, for example I am not a medical doctor.

    Here’s WebMD’s recommendations about the side effects of Natrol 5-HTP. It’s under the heading Side Effects: This advice is:

    ”Consult your pharmacist.

    In the US –

    Call your doctor for medical advice about side effects. You may report side effects to FDA at 1-800-FDA-1088.

    In Canada – Call your doctor for medical advice about side effects. You may report side effects to Health Canada at 1-866-234-2345.”

    Regardless of whether or not you call one of the above phone numbers, I strongly recommend that you see a relevant healthcare professional soon, and you get some medical tests done.

    I hope your health improves shortly.

    Kind regards,


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