You may have heard of serotonin as a hormone your body produces that helps produce feelings of happiness, satisfaction, and normal sleep patterns. But it's less well-known that serotonin can play a large role in your appetite and food cravings.
Age, increased levels of stress due to a hectic lifestyle, and bad eating habits can all compromise your levels of serotonin, resulting in depression, anxiety, insomnia, and even weight gain. This often leads to the viscous cycle of "I eat because I'm stressed, and I'm stressed because I'm gaining weight." While cleaning up your diet may help offset some of this, increasing your body's serotonin levels purely through food is unlikely to happen since it's not found in large quantities in most diets. This is where 5-HTP can help.
5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, is a naturally occurring substance that comes from the seed pods of Griffonia simplicifolia. In humans, 5-HTP converts directly into serotonin in the brain and has been shown to help with mood, anxiety, and weight loss. Compared to tryptophan, a commonly used supplement to boost serotonin levels, 5-HTP has an increased absorption rate and can cross the blood-brain barrier with great ease.
This supplement comes with a caveat: If you're taking an antidepressant, using 5-HTP at the same time is not a good idea, so talk to your doctor before proceeding. But if you're someone looking to stick to a dietary plan—particularly a low-carb one—this supplement could help.
More Than A Mood Booster
While the benefits of 5-HTP on mood have been well-documented, most people are unaware of the role 5-HTP has on appetite regulation and weight loss.
One landmark study out of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition had 20 obese participants supplement with 900 milligrams of 5-HTP or a placebo daily for 12 weeks.2 For the first six weeks, no dietary guidelines were given, but the subjects kept records of what they ate. During the second half, participants were asked to reduce their calorie intake to just 1200 a day—a level typical of what we could consider "extreme" dieting.
During the first weeks, participants taking 5-HTP voluntarily reduced their calorie intake by a whopping average of 1,347 calories (from 3,233 calories to 1,886). Those given the placebo observed no change in food intake. When asked—but not required—to drop calories during weeks 7-12, the 5-HTP group was able to drop down to 1,276 calories—a further decrease of 610 calories—despite the already large drop seen in the first six weeks. The drop in calories led to a significant decrease in body weight only observed in the 5-HTP group.
Another interesting finding of this study was that the group supplementing with 5-HTP significantly reduced their carbohydrate intake—from around 350 grams per day to 160 grams per day—and reported higher levels of satiety (or fullness) at the lower level. These findings suggest 5-HTP may be a useful dieting supplement for those going on a low-carb diet, due to 5-HTP's ability to mimic the well-known effects carbohydrates have on raising serotonin levels in the brain.
A more recent study from 2012 found that when overweight subjects were administered 5-HTP for four weeks, they observed significant decreases in BMI, skinfold thickness, and circumferences. Additionally, the subjects' feelings of satiety increased, even though they were put on a reduced-calorie diet.
There's a saying that the best diet is the one you're able to follow consistently. From this perspective, 5-HTP shows the most benefit as an adherence booster. It can help you stick with your nutritional plan, giving you one more tool to help build long-term weight-loss success.
Supplement For Weight Loss
Dosing recommendations for 5-HTP run the gamut online. In fat-loss studies, 300 milligrams taken three times a day with meals has been shown to be effective, but a more typical approach is 300-500 milligrams per day total, often split between 2-3 doses.
As mentioned earlier, it's a bad idea to mix 5-HTP with depression medications, especially without a doctor's supervision. The two in combination can lead to high levels of free serotonin in the brain, which can be very dangerous. If you have any doubt, talk to your doctor first.
5-HTP may be particularly useful for those taking a low-carbohydrate or ketogenic approach to dieting, as it could help mimic the effects carbohydrates have on serotonin levels. However, this comes with a caveat as well. Although studies mentioned in this article didn't involve an exercise intervention, if your goal is to optimize body composition and achieve long-term success, you need more than just a supplement like this one. A well-designed, sustainable diet and exercise plan are both essential as well!
- Birdsall, T. C. (1998). 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor. Alternative Medicine Review, 3(4), 271-280.
- Cangiano, C., Ceci, F., Cascino, A., Del Ben, M., Laviano, A., Muscaritoli, M., ... & Rossi-Fanelli, F. (1992). Eating behavior and adherence to dietary prescriptions in obese adult subjects treated with 5-hydroxytryptophan.The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 565), 863-867.
- Rondanelli, M., Opizzi, A., Faliva, M., Bucci, M., & Perna, S. (2012). Relationship between the absorption of 5-hydroxytryptophan from an integrated diet, by means of Griffonia simplicifolia extract, and the effect on satiety in overweight females after oral spray administration. Eating and Weight Disorders-Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 17(1), e22-e28.