If you’re one of the 16 plus million people in the UK who will experience symptoms of depression, anxiety or panic attacks each year, then chances are you’ve heard of 5-HTP (5 HydroxyTryptoPhan).
Supplements of the amino acid – that is naturally produced by the body – have been popping up on health store shelves, including Holland & Barrett and Lloyds Pharmacy. It’s even stocked by Tesco.
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But is this latest 'answer' to anxiety (and obesity, migraine, fibromyalgia pain and insomnia, which it’s also claimed to help) worth trying out? Actor Jim Carrey apparently swears by it – in an interview with Larry King for CNN he describes it as 'amazing' and 'a wonderful thing'.
But... Not so fast. Like any health trend wagon, it pays to do your research before jumping on board – particularly as, when it comes to 5-HTP supplements, the science is dated and limited, at best.
For example, a paper by the University of Utah suggests that 5-HTP reduced symptoms of depression – when combined with other related medications. But it didn’t use a placebo for comparison and due to the small-scale nature of the study, how reliable the results are is anybody’s guess.
So, why is it, despite this, that 5-HTP is causing such a stir as a natural anxiety treatment? Can it really help combat anxiety symptoms, including appetite loss, sleep disturbances and poor energy levels?
We decided to ask the experts to bring you their take on 5-HTP supplements. Knowledge equals health, after all.
So... What is 5-HTP?
5-HTP is an amino acid that is produced by the body and used to made serotonin – aka the 'feel-good' hormone. Low levels of serotonin have been associated with the likes of depression, anxiety, sleep problems and weight gain.
'Serotonin helps carry nerve impulses from one neurone to the other, through gaps between two nerve endings, known as synapses,' says Dr Arghya Sarkhel, lead psychiatrist of Living Mind mental health clinic.
According to Dr Sarkhel, in anxiety, there is a deficiency of serotonin in these synapses. Normally, neurotransmitters such as serotonin are reabsorbed into the body after they’ve carried their impulse. Commonly prescribed antidepressants SSRIs prevent serotonin from being reabsorbed, so there is more of it in the synapses.
On the face of it, you would think it would be a cut and dry scenario. Upping your levels of 5-HTP must mean upping your levels of serotonin.
And, if serotonin is responsible for making you feel good, surely the more you have of it, the happier you’ll be. But when is life ever that simple?
What does 5-HTP do for your body?
A reduction in anxiety symptoms is the obvious one. And, because 5-HTP is metabolised quickly by the body, you shouldn’t have to wait long to notice their positive impact.
However, as already mentioned, the scientific backing of this is limited.
Even Dr Sarkhel finds herself torn.
'From a biochemical perspective, it makes sense to supplement with 5-HTP as it will produce more serotonin and will, therefore, help subside anxiety symptoms,' she says. 'However, I have some reservations.'
Best scroll on.
Is taking 5-HTP dangerous?
It could be. First up, there possible are side effects, which include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain and increased symptoms of depression and anxiety. That’s right. Increased.
For, although 5-HTP can up serotonin levels in the body, it may also reduce the amounts of other, equally important neurotransmitters such as dopamine. And it’s this guy that’s partly responsible for how motivated and satisfied you feel in life.
'Excessive 5-HTP can lead to what is known as Serotonergic Syndrome, which is characterised by agitation, anxiety and lack of sleep,' Dr Sarkhel says.
And it doesn’t end there.
'Most of these supplement products do not go through rigorous checks, regarding their quality and quantity, compared to pharmaceutical companies,' says Dr Sarkhel. 'Therefore, even if you follow the packet guidelines, there remains a risk of under- or overtreatment.
'Plus, the availability of 5-HTP inside the neurones through oral supplements is not adequate to produce enough serotonin.
'This is why most of the effective antidepressants work via inhibition of the re-uptake of serotonin so that more of the hormone becomes available in the synapses.'
It’s even been suggested that, over time, the body can cotton on to what you’re doing, cutting back on the amount of 5-HTP it produces itself. So, those happy days results you felt at first? Gone.
Confused? Here’s are five other natural anxiety treatments that Dr Sarkhel would recommend you try, before taking 5-HTP.
5 Other Ways to Manage Anxiety Symptoms
1. Identify the root cause
'It’s important to see a doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions, which could be a hidden cause of your anxiety – for example, hyperthyroidism or infection. It could even be a side effect to a medication you’re currently taking.'
2. Develop constructive coping strategies
'Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) helps learn the connection between life events, catastrophic thinking, emotional disturbances, behavioural changes etc. It also helps develop more constructive coping strategies.'
3. Practice mindfulness exercises
'Mindfulness exercises can be really helpful for managing anxiety symptoms. I offer a mindful exercise for anxiety on my website.'
4. Stay social
'Engaging in diverse social activities using a systemic desensitisation approach under the guidance of a psychologist and psychiatrist can be beneficial.'
5. Try TMS Therapy
'TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) Therapy is a state-of-the-art, drug-free approach to anxiety and depression. It uses a magnetic pulse to stimulate neurons to become more active. We have seen an excellent response in our clinic for the treatment of anxiety.'
Now you're dosed up on 5-htp info, learn more about how to de-stress.
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