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5-HTP and the Many Faces of Depression

Anxiety and Depression

Q. Dear Cynthia, I saw your article online for 5 HTP.I am thinking of taking it as I don’t know what else to take. I tried taking anti depressants but get acne when I take them. I had a trauma a couple of years ago to my face after I had IPL laser for some skin problems, it left me awful side effects of morning/overnight edema and a loss of elasticity to my skin. Since then I became very depressed,I am living alone.

I have been told I have early menopause(I am 45 but have had it for 2 and a half years.)I also have had hot flushing recently but this may be connected with anxiety as it has happened before the menopause. I read online that edema and flushing are side effects of 5 HTP but am desperate for a lifting of my mood. I have had problems taking vitamins recently -throwing up etc.About 6 years ago I had severe irritable bowel.As I don’t have edema now(I have slept with blocks under the head of my bed since the trauma, which stopped the morning facial swelling) but am concerned 5 HTP may trigger these problems again?I take agnus castus.I have had pigmentation spots on my face most of my life, and took St Johns Wort some time ago which darkened the pigmentation, as did some herbs I took from a herbalist.This has increased my depression. It seems like every way I turn produces a new problem and I am coming to the end of knowing what to do.I live in London and have just had a job cut so do not have money to spend on consultations etc as I have already been to see different people mentioned above.I am in need of something strong for depression. Your advice on 5 HTP would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Anonymous

A. Dear Anonymous,

Since you first read my article on 5-HTP side effects and cautions, I have made an update to the page. After writing that page, I attended several seminars and classes where I discovered the reason for my negative experience, so I encourage you to look at the bottom of the page where it says update and read that section.

I know that many practitioners think that 5-HTP is one of the best products out there, but I do not agree completely. It is not best for all people. I work with the very sensitive population who are experiencing high levels of anxiety and advanced adrenal fatigue and most of them report a worsening of symptoms when they tried 5-HTP. So in my opinion this group of people do not respond favorably, because 5-HTP can increase cortisol and norepinephrine. As mentioned in my page on 5-HTP, it caused me to have a severe and debilitating crash in my adrenal glands and actually produced depression.

It’s important to know if you really need 5-HTP and the dosage is important, because if you don’t really need it or you take the wrong dose, then you can actually bring on depression. That is what happened in my situation. I had a neurotransmitter test that measured the levels of neurotransmitters in the urine and it told me I needed 5-HTP. However, I later learned that this type of testing for neurotransmitters is not reliable. I later had an Organic Acid test, which is a more reliable way of testing the neurotransmitters, and it indicated my serotonin levels are normal and I did not need 5-HTP. Thus one of the reasons I had the reaction I did. Too much 5-HTP can produce the opposite effect and some people just don’t respond favorably for unknown reasons.

So it is my opinion that if the individual is very ill, has high levels of anxiety or severe adrenal fatigue that 5-HTP should be avoided and tryptophan should be tried instead. If you fall within this category of people, I would think twice about it. The reason 5-HTP is effective for depression is because 5-HTP is the precursor to our neurotransmitter serotonin, therefore it increases serotonin. When serotonin is deficient, it results in depression. Tryptophan is the precursor to 5-HTP and is broken down into 5-HTP, so you’re still getting 5-HTP, but the difference is that the body often tolerates it in this form better. It converts what it needs into 5-HTP, but when given the 5-HTP form it is forced to take whatever dose is in the supplement.

An important point to keep in mind if you do try 5-HTP or tryptophan is this: there should be observable improvement relatively quickly. For some people, it is within an hour. At a minimum, it should be within a few days. If there is no improvement in this amount of time or there is an exacerbation in depression or new symptoms develop, then it should be discontinued immediately.

St. John’s Wort can also exacerbate symptoms in some people, because of the manner in which it works and it also increases norepinephrine. If you’re experiencing anxiety, you probably have too much norepinephrine, so increasing it is counterproductive. I am not an advocate of using herbs for depression or anxiety because they work similar to a prescription drug. They only put a band aid on the symptom and the underlying issue of neurotransmitters is not addressed. A nutrient that can be helpful for reducing excessive norepinephrine is SAM-e, and it has also been found to be helpful with depression.

There is a difference between herbs and nutritional supplements. The body needs the nutrients in the nutritional supplement, they address the root problem of deficiency. An herb is not needed by the body, it is basically a natural drug. Yes, there are some herbs that have a variety of benefits for a variety of health issues, but anxiety and depression are not one of them.

Additionally, it is not always as simple as just taking 5-HTP or tryptophan, because their cofactors are needed as well. For example, adequate levels of iron, folic acid and B3 are needed in the conversion from tryptophan to 5-HTP and sufficient levels of P5P (pyridoxal 5 phosphate) are needed for the conversion of 5-HTP into serotonin. If these nutrients are not sufficient in the body, then conversions will not happen and 5-HTP or tryptophan will not be effective. Many people are deficient in iron, folic acid, B3 and/or P5P. At a minimum, amino acid supplementation should always be accompanied by P5P. If the mineral copper is too high in your body, this can inhibit the conversion of 5-HTP into serotonin. So knowing one’s mineral status is also important.

As always, I recommend working with a knowledgeable health care provider who practices functional medicine, orthomolecular medicine or something similar. Manipulating neurotransmitters, whether it is through prescription drugs or natural means is a delicate process. When you don’t understand all that is involved, it is easy to have counterproductive results. At a minimum, be sure to do your research and educate yourself as much as possible.

A couple other things to keep in mind — depression and anxiety occur because of a disruption, imbalance or depletion in neurotransmitters in the brain. Nutritional supplements, regardless of which one we are talking about, can only do so much if the other contributing factors are not addressed.

Other major contributing factors to neurotransmitter disruption, imbalance and depletion that result in anxiety and depression include sugar, refined and processed foods, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, drugs, chronic stress, Candida overgrowth or other unfriendly organisms, heavy metal toxicity, hormone imbalance, adrenal fatigue, hypoglycemia, hypothyroidism, food sensitivities, mold mycotoxins, nutritional deficiencies and environmental toxins. Depression can also be caused by a genetic blood disorder called pyroluria. The best results with nutritional supplements are achieved when all these factors are addressed as well. Please read this page on the many causes of depression,

Many of your symptoms sound like you at least have Candida overgrowth and perhaps some other organisms like h pylori or anaerobes, food sensitivity, nutritional deficiencies and hormone imbalance.

You’ll also want to take a look at the following pages on my site.

Candida Overgrowth

Adrenal Fatigue

Hormone Imbalance

Neurotransmitters

Dysautonomia

Nutritional Deficiencies

Food Allergies and Sensitivities

Hypothyroidism

You should also consider taking a look at my Ebook, What Your Psychologist Hasn’t Told You About Anxiety and Depression, as it covers all the issues that need addressed in more detail.

One of the simplest things you can do for yourself right now, that usually brings immediate improvement in depression, is to change the diet and do some environmental clean up. What you eat and the environmental toxins you are exposed to has a profound impact on your neurotransmitters and is often a root factor in depression.

  • Remove all sugar, caffeine, artificial flavorings, dyes and sweeteners, refined foods
  • Eat whole foods
  • Eat more meat protein and fat
  • Remove all grains
  • Eat lots of non-starchy vegetables
  • Avoid chocolate
  • Eat small amounts of nuts, seeds and fruits
  • Eat organic
  • Avoid pesticides and herbicides
  • Use non-toxic, environmentally friendly personal care products and household cleaning products
  • Avoid air fresheners, perfume, and cigarette smoke

Take a look at these pages for more details on the diet that should be eaten and environmental toxin issues

12 Reasons to Eat More Meat

The Paleolithic Diet

Healthy Diet Plan

Good Carbs Bad Carbs

Pesticides and Your Health

Environmental Toxins

Environmental Health

Hypoglycemia

Unfortunately, overcoming depression is usually not as simple as taking a single supplement like 5-HTP. It requires a comprehensive and long-term approach that include significant changes in diet and lifestyle. However, substantial improvement can usually be acquired with a variety of self-care strategies found on this page and the many pages, I’ve linked you to above.

All the best.
Cynthia

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • ~ C December 4, 2013, 12:32 am

    Hi Cynthia,

    I really appreciate your blog. I’ve stumbled across it on numerous occasions.

    I feel I am experiencing some worsening symptoms of depression when taking 5-htp. Do you know why this happens? If I take something to lower cortisol it might help? Or does it just have to do with having too much serotonin? Or
    a bad reaction to serotonin?

    It’s really weird. It comes and goes for me. For example, I had that “just bad” feeling today after taking the 5-htp then took some lemon balm, and
    that bad feeling went away. However, I believe I had a bad reaction to the lemon balm (I read it interferes with thyroid hormones, so I think that’s what happened).

    You mentioned tryptophan a few times. Is that a good alternative when a person feels a worsening of depression with 5-htp? Did you ever try it?

    Thanks for any feedback!

  • Admin - Cynthia Perkins December 6, 2013, 12:19 pm

    Hi C,

    Thank you. I’m glad you appreciate my blog.

    Well it would be hard for me to say for sure without more extensive background information, but here are a few thoughts to consider.

    You may be one of those people who doesn’t respond well to 5-HTP and would do better with tryptophan. Yes, some people do better with tryptophan than they do with 5-HTP.

    You may not need to increase serotonin. You could find out with an organic acids test.

    http://www.holistichelp.net/organic-acids-test.html

    Some people do not respond well to anything that manipulates their neurotransmitters and can’t take these types of supplements.

    I did try tryptophan, but it doesn’t agree with me either. I am one of those people who can’t take anything that manipulates neurotransmitters.

    Taking something to decrease cortisol is not likely to resolve the problem.

    You may be deficient in other nutrients needed to synthesize serotonin. The brain needs tryptophan, iron, folic acid, b3
    and p5p to make serotonin. Just taking 5-HTP won’t do the trick if the others are missing. Especially p5p.

    Yes, some people feel lemon balm interacts with TSH so it may affect the thyroid. However, it also interacts with GABA, your primary calming neurotransmitter. So the 5-HTP may have caused an unwanted increase in norepinephrine and cortisol and then the lemon balm may have initially made you feel better because it increased your GABA, which lowered your norep and cortisol. But then you had some effect on your thyroid or a negative response to manipulating your GABA. Manipulating neurotransmitters is tricky business.

    The most important point to be aware of is that nutritional supplements have very little impact if one does not change their diet and clean up their living environment. Please take a look at the following pages

    http://www.holistichelp.net/blog/the-bottom-line/

    http://www.holistichelp.net/blog/when-nutritional-supplements-make-you-worse/

    http://www.holistichelp.net/blog/will-the-paleolithic-diet-help-anxiety-and-depression/

    If you are taking the 5-HTP for depression, it’s also important to be aware that there are many other factors that contribute depression, like the foods you eat, Candida overgrowth, food sensitivities, nutritional deficiencies, adrenal fatigue, heavy metal toxicity, chronic stress, hormones, environmental toxins. 5-HTP may do little good or cause unwanted results when something else is disrupting neurotransmitters.

    You may want to take a look at the following book to explore these issues further

    http://www.holistichelp.net/anxiety-and-depression.html

    Of course, you should always discuss all of these things with your practitioner.

    Best
    Cynthia

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