A solution to the weight-loss puzzle
WHAT IS 5-HTP SUPPOSED TO DO?
The purpose of taking 5-HTP is to reduce carbohydrate cravings, and thus, diminish food intake, resulting in weight loss. In addition to promoting weight loss, it has also been linked with beneficial effects on behaviors such as sleep disturbances, narcolepsy, depression, migraines, anxiety, bulimia, PMS, compulsive behaviors, substance abuse, childhood hyperactivity, and hypersexuality.
WHERE DOES THIS 5-HTP COME FROM, AND HOW IS IT TAKEN?
5-HTP is obtained by extracting it from the seeds of a legume called Griffonia simplicifolia, which is found in West Africa. It is recommended to take anywhere from 50mg to 900mg 5-HTP daily, depending on the needs of the individual. It is available in both a capsule or a drink mix. It should be taken between meals (at least 30 minutes before each meal) to prevent its interaction with other amino acids and to ensure its effectiveness.
HOW DOES 5-HTP WORK?
A deficiency in the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT) has been linked with a number of behaviors mentioned above. It has especially been associated with carbohydrate craving because eating carbohydrates is one way to briefly increase the brain’s level of 5-HT. This occurs because carbohydrates induce insulin production, and this insulin promotes 5-HT production. A temporary sense of well-being and satiety occurs. From this, it has been concluded that by increasing the brain’s 5-HT levels by methods other than overeating carbs, these cravings would be avoided, satiety would be reached earlier, overeating would be avoided, and weight
would be lost.
So why does 5-HTP have this effect? 5-hydroxy-L-Tryptophan is a precursor to 5-HT, along with the amino acid
tryptophan. It is thought that by providing the brain with this precursor in the form of 5-HTP capsules or drink mix, a person’s cells will naturally increase the production of 5-HT. This increase in 5-HT induced by the supplements will stop carbohydrate cravings, increase satiety earlier, and lead to weight loss.
Why 5-HTP instead of the other precursor, tryptophan? In fact, tryptophan was also once used to alleviate effects of 5-HT depletion such as depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. However, in 1988, the FDA began restricting the marketing of tryptophan due to a contaminated batch imported from a Japanese company. This is what led to the recent focus on 5-HTP, the other precursor to 5-HT.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL DOWNFALLS TO TAKING 5-HTP?
Possible side effects that have been noted to occur during 5-HTP administration include anxiety, digestive upset, headache, lethargy, muscle pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, inability to sleep, and nausea.
WHO IS SELLING 5-HTP, AND WHAT CLAIMS ARE THEY MAKING ABOUT IT?
There are numerous existing websites that provide much information about 5-HTP, its role in the serotonin pathway, recommended dosages, possible side effects, how it compares to other drugs/antidepressants, and personal experiences. I have chosen a sampling of them and summarized them in order to provide an overall idea of the types of 5-HTP sites that have been created. These were relatively easy to understand and some even seemed to have some scientific basis behind their claims. It is from these websites that most of the above information was obtained.
All Natural Health – This organization provides 30-100 mg capsules of 5-HTP for $16.00. They claim that anywhere from 100-900 mg 5-HTP can safely be taken daily, depending on the symptoms and needs of the individual. They declare that 5-HTP also relieves depression and pain in addition to preventing carbohydrate cravings.
All Natural Health’s website describes that 5-HTP works due to the fact that it can be used to increase the synthesis of 5-HT in the brain, preventing cravings. All Natural Health promotes the use of 5-HTP because they say it has been proven to be sufficient in fulfilling the roles of antidepressants without the negative side effects. They claim that these antidepressants “may reduce serotonin stores and impair its release, resulting in less serotonin in the brain,” and thus are inferior to 5-HTP.
Altered States – This New Zealand-based organization is selling 30 capsules of 5-HTP for $18.35. Each capsule contains 50 mg 5-HTP and 10 mg St. John’s Wort, which they say might enhance the effects of the 5-HTP and also induces tranquility. 10 mg Vitamin B6 is also included since it is utilized in the conversion of 5-HTP to 5-HT. Finally, a form of Vitamin B3 used to convert tryptophan to 5-HTP, and calcium citrate and magnesium hydroxide, which have sedative effects, are included in each capsule. They sell their product as a drink mix as well.
The Altered States website claims that the supplements they produce are related to decreased depression, improved sleep, reduced anxiety, migraine relief, and decreased carbohydrate cravings/weight loss. They support their claims about all of these conditions by discussing studies in which those with these ailments were treated with 5-HTP. In each of the studies, beneficial results associated with the administration of 5-HTP were found.
Altered States says that the effects of the supplement vary according to each individual, are safe, and that possible side effects are rare and include headaches, congestion, mild stomach aches, and constipation.
Health Locker – Health Locker markets a product called ProSlim VX5, which is a combination of Vanadium, 5-HTP, and Chromium. They sell 60 capsules for $29.90. The Health Locker website explains the effectiveness of ProSlim VX5 as being the result of “assisting the body in regulating healthy levels of serotonin.” By producing 5-HT using its precursor (5-HTP) instead of by overeating carbohydrates, appetite control is much more manageable. The role of Vanadium and Chromium is supposedly to enhance the burning of calories and the effects of the 5-HTP.
Health Locker warns that nervousness, tremor, sleeplessness, or nausea are possible side effects and recommend reducing or discontinuing use of the supplement if these should occur. They also warn that those who are pregnant, have high blood pressure, heart or thyroid disease, diabetes, difficulty urinating, or are taking an MAO inhibitor or other prescription drug should consult a doctor before use.
Smartbodyz – This organization sells 90 capsules for $24.90. This website provides an extensive scientific discussion about the role of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, including information about the effects of 5-HT deficiency. They explain that when one is feeling anxious or depressed, he or she tends to crave and overeat carbohydrates, which releases insulin, inducing 5-HT production and a temporary state of well-being, as described above. The major problem is that this insulin also amplifies the conversion of the carbohydrates into body fat, resulting in weight gain.
The Smartbodyz website also describes in detail the conversion of tryptophan to 5-HT. It supports its claims about the effectiveness of 5-HTP in treating depression and overeating by describing studies in which treatment with 5-HTP proved to be favorable. Finally, this website describes why 5-HTP is more effective than and superior to other antidepressants, or SSRI’s (serotonin-selective re-uptake inhibitors), such as Prozac. They argue that the reason for this is because the SSRI’s merely prevent the re-uptake of 5-HT present in the synapse, causing in a higher concentration of it in the brain. In contrast, 5-HTP works by actually increasing the production of serotonin. (Why this is preferred is not described.)
Ray Sahelian – In addition to providing the typical information about 5-HTP, this website provides many detailed questions and answers that users have had concerning the product and their personal experiences with it. It provides useful information about things like dosages, side effects, etc.
Here are some other 5-HTP links that may be found useful for those with an interest in this supplement:
http://www.naturalhealthconsult.com/Monographs/5-htp.html (includes excellent extensive discussion of possible complications and conditions that are potentially dangerous while taking 5-HTP.)
DO THESE SOURCES HAVE ANY REAL SCIENTIFIC BASIS, OR IS
5-HTP MERELY ANOTHER WEIGHT-LOSS SCAM?
Research to discover if any of the above claims about 5-HTP and its role in weight loss have any truth revealed the following about the supplement:
From 1989 through 1998, a group of Italian scientists from the University of Rome La Sapienza did a series of four studies on the effects of 5-HTP on overweight and obese adults. The first was a study focusing on feeding behavior. It was a double-blind study including 19 obese female adults with Body Mass Indexes between 30 and 40. Half of the subjects was given 5-HTP while the other half was given a placebo. Each took the medication for 5 weeks, a week passed with no medication to avoid carry-over effect, and then a second 5-week period passed in which the medication was administered again. There were no dietary restrictions at all placed on the subjects. Diet diaries were kept by the subjects in order to keep track of food intake
, eating behavior, and anorexic symptoms. Anorexic symptoms included meat aversion, taste and smell alteration, nausea, vomiting, and early satiety. Twice each week, each patient completed a self-evaluation of appetite and satiety at lunchtime. Those who had any one of the anorexic symptoms were determined to be anorectic. To ensure that any change in psychological status of a subject could not be considered an explanation for any reported changes in food intake and eating behaviors, depression and anxiety tests were administered to each subject before and after each study period.
The results of the study proved to be in favor of the hypothesis that 5-HTP causes a decrease in food intake and earlier satiety, resulting in a loss of weight. The group taking 5-HTP consumed significantly fewer calories than the placebo group. In addition to this, carbohydrate intake of the 5-HTP group was also significantly less that that of the placebo group; protein intake remained constant in both groups. Anorexic symptoms were reported in about 78% of the 5-HTP group as opposed to only 30% in the placebo group. The degree of satiety was determined to be higher among the 5-HTP group than the placebo group. Finally, the amount of weight lost was significantly higher in the 5-HTP group than in the placebo group. No differences of psychological status were recorded in any of the subjects.
The scientists who carried out this experiment attributed the results of the experiment to the increase of serotonin in the brain induced by the 5-HTP supplements. It was also mentioned that compared to studies utilizing tryptophan similarly, a much lower dose of 5-HTP was used than tryptophan, yet more than three times as much weight was lost. This indicates that 5-HTP is more effective than tryptophan for weight loss. In conclusion, the scientists who carried out this experiment stated that “the good tolerance to 5-HTP suggests that this substance may be safely utilized in the long-term treatment of obesity” (Cairella M et al., 1989)
The second study carried out by the Italian scientists was very similar to the first, but focused more on whether or not subjects were able to abide by dietary restrictions placed on them during the second 6-week period. During this period, only 1200 calories were to be consumed by both the 5-HTP and placebo groups.
The results of this study were similar to those of the first. Anorexic symptoms were again more prominent in the 5-HTP group, as was earlier satiety and reduced food intake. In the second 6-week period, the 5-HTP group almost doubled their weight loss, while the placebo group did not lose any weight at all. These results suggest that 5-HTP was responsible for the 5-HTP subjects’ better adherence to the dietary restrictions. A notable side effect in this experiment was nausea, but it stopped occurring in the second 6-week trial, insinuating that it is only a temporary side effect (Cairella M et al., 1991).
The third study was essentially the same as the second, focusing on abidance to dietary restrictions, but this study also examined the types of food consumed by each group. The results were again similar to the first two studies. But this time, it was noted that 5-HTP subjects decreased their carbohydrate intake by 50% in the first 6-week period, and then another notable decrease occurred in the second 6-week period. There was no reduction in carbohydrate intake by the placebo group. The scientists interpreted these results to mean that “the administration of 5-HTP was in fact followed by a reduction of both daily total energy and carbohydrate intakes followed by a significant loss of body weight” (Antonucci F et al., 1992).
The final study carried out by the Italian scientists was again similar to the first three. However, this study utilized overweight non-insulin dependent diabetic patients (NIDDM) as its subjects since this disease causes a reduced level of serotonin in the brain, leading to carbohydrate craving and overeating. The low concentration of brain serotonin is most likely the result of the unavailability of tryptophan, which occurs in NIDDM. The administration of 5-HTP to NIDDM patients was effective in reducing their carbohydrate cravings and essentially resulted in the loss of weight. The Italian scientists concluded that a combination of these results along with similar results to a second more long-term study including a larger sample could implicate 5-HTP as a method for of “NIDDM patients to achieve a better metabolic control” (Angelico F et al., 1998).
Evidently, all of these studies support the use of 5-HTP as an effective way of promoting weight loss by increasing serotonin in the brain and thus decreasing carbohydrate cravings. However, in contrast to the findings of the third study discussed above, a study done in The Netherlands challenges the declaration that weight loss is due to reduced carbohydrate craving. This study tested the hypothesis that “serotoninergic drugs would induce a greater weight loss in carbohydrate craving (CC) than in non-carbohydrate craving (NC) obese patients” (Elte-de Wever BM et al., 1996). In this study, it was found that even under the influence of serotoninergic drugs, both CC and NC subjects lost the same amount of weight, suggesting that serotonin-induced weight loss is not specifically carbohydrate-related, as the Italian studies implied. Nevertheless, this study emphasizes the idea that drugs that increase brain serotonin do indeed promote weight loss.
Many studies in addition to these reiterate the fact that drugs used to increase brain serotonin lead to decreased cravings and earlier satiety (Alexander JT et al., 1998; Cooper TB et al., 2000; Cowen PJ et al., 1999; Fernstrom JD et al., 2000). Examples of these drugs are fenfluramine, fluoxetine, norfenfluramine. Whether or not this occurs because of a decrease in specifically carbohydrate cravings needs to be further researched, since discrepancies about this exist. But despite this, there is considerable evidence that brain serotonin-increasing drugs, and therefore 5-HTP, are an effective way to treat obesity and in promoting weight loss.
After extensive researching, nothing was found that greatly invalidated the claims made on 5-HTP, either on the web or in medical journals. However, since the focus on this supplement is relatively recent, and because medical research on 5-HTP is so limited right now, it is probably smart to wait until further research information on 5-HTP becomes available before using it.
Alexander JT, Leibowitz SF (1998): Hypothalamic serotonin in control of eating behavior, meal size, and body weight. Biological Psychiatry 44(9):851-64.
Angelico F, Cangiano C, Cascino A, Del Ben M, Laviano A, Preziosa I, Rossi-Fanelli F (1998): Effects of oral 5-hydroxy-tryptophan on energy intake and macronutrient selection in non-insulin dependent diabetic patients. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 22(7):648-54.
Antonucci F, Cangiano C, Cascino A, Ceci F, 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. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 56(5):863-7.
Cairella M, Cangiano C, Cascino A, Ceci F, Del Ben M, Muscaritoli M, Rossi-Fanelli F, Sibilia L (1989): The effects of oral 5-hydroxytryptophan administration on feeding behavior in obese adult female subjects. Journal of Neural Transmission 76(2):109-17).
Cairella M, Cangiano C, Cascino A, Ceci F, Del Ben M, Muscaritoli M, Rossi-Fanelli F (1991): Effects of 5-hydroxytryptophan on eating behavior and adherence to dietary prescriptions in obese adult subjects. Advances in Experimental Medical Biology 294:591-3.
Cooper TB, Finkelstein DM, Jimerson DC, Levine JM, Metzger ED, Wolfe BE (2000): Serotonin function following remission from bulimia nervosa. Neuropsychopharmacology 22(3):257-63.
Cowen PJ, Smith KA (1999): Serotonin, dieting, and bulimia nervosa. Advances in Experimental Medical Biology 467:101-4.
Elte-de Wever BM, Hopman E, Meinders AE, Pijl H, Toornvliet AC (1996): Serotoninergic drug-induced weight loss in carbohydrate craving people. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 20(10):917-20.
Fernstrom JD, Fernstrom MH, Gendall KA, Kaye WH, McConahan CW, Weltzin TE (2000): Effects of acute tryptophan depletion on mood in bulimia nervosa. Biological Psychiatry 47(2):151-7.