5-hydroxytryptophan is a popular and effective supplement for many people to address a variety of different conditions, like depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, OCD and many more. However, that is not always the case for everyone, as sometimes 5-HTP side effects do occur.
Before I share my experience, I first want to clarify that in no way am I saying that I am against 5-HTP therapy, amino acid therapies, or other natural remedies. I am in total support of these kind of therapies. However, the point I want to make is that “natural” does not always means free of side effects or complications and not all therapies work the same for everyone, even in the natural health field.
When I added a supplement to my regimen that included 5-HTP, I wasn’t taking this supplement for depression. I was taking it because it is believed that serotonin plays an important role in adrenal fatigue and migraine headaches, both of which are conditions that I live with. I didn’t have depression.
I had a neurotransmitter test by Neuroscience that indicated I was deficient in serotonin and GABA and my norepinephrine levels were elevated. So I was taking a supplement the lab recommended called, Travacor, that included 5-HTP, taurine, and l-theanine, as well as folic acid, b12, b6, zinc, vitamin c, and magnesium.
When I first started taking it, I felt a moderate boost in mood, but this passed after a couple weeks and then I didn’t feel much of anything. After a month or so I felt less desire to eat carbohydrates and perhaps a little more patient. I didn’t notice any improvement in adrenal fatigue or migraines. However, I decided to give it another month.
During the next month I developed severe biochemical depression, feelings of overwhelming dread, dreariness, doom and gloom, high levels of fear and even some paranoia. I’d like to remind you, I was not experiencing any of these feelings prior to taking this supplement. However, I am quite familiar with what biochemical depression feels like because I had lived with it for a decade in my teens and twenties. When I was 28, I stopped eating sugar, caffeine, wheat, and garbage food, cleaned up environmental toxins out of my life, ate organic and only whole foods and my depression went away. I hadn’t had biochemical depression, or what is also called clinical or major depression, in more than 20 years. So when I began to experience these feelings, I recognized them quite well and was very concerned to see their return.
Additionally, during the last month I was taking 5-HTP, I also developed severe hot flashes, a complete intolerance to heat and before it was all done and over with I had a complete crash in my adrenal glands with a complete inability to handle any stress and weakness so severe I could hardly stand up. I ended up in bed for two weeks and felt like I was going to die. Also during this month, I had two of the worse migraines I’ve ever experienced. Again, I was not having any of these symptoms prior to taking this supplement.
Having a negative reaction to natural remedies is not uncommon for me, it has happened numerous times, so I always know to be on the lookout anytime I start a new therapy. However, because I had been on this supplement for a few months before these feelings came on, I didn’t immediately make the connection that it was 5-HTP side effects causing this situation. As I tried to determine what brought this on, I analyzed all the changes in my life that could possibly result in this kind of impact.
I hadn’t made any changes in my diet or lifestyle over the last few months so it couldn’t be that. I hadn’t added any other supplements to my regimen or had a major pesticide exposure, so that couldn’t be the culprit. Then suddenly I remembered that a little over a year ago I took a different amino acid formula to stimulate neurotransmitters and it had given me severe hot flashes so I had to discontinue its use. It took a couple of months for that to occur as well. I also remembered that I had taken another supplement with 5 HTP in it only for a week and had to discontinue it because it gave me a migraine every day. So I thought it must be the 5-HTP formula that caused this depression and health crash and I immediately discontinued its use.
In about a week, almost all the depression, dread, fear, hot flashes, a severe intolerance to heat, etc., were gone. Then in two weeks, I was pretty much back to my normal self, except my adrenal glands had not recovered completely yet. I still haven’t been able to get my adrenal glands back to where they were previously. I still have to rest more than normal and engage in lots of self-nurturing for the adrenals.
Again, I want to note that I don’t share this experience with you to discourage the usage of 5-Hydroxytryptophan or other amino acid therapies. Just because I had a bad experience does not mean that you will. Many people use these therapies and experience positive results. Probably most people will not have the side effects of 5-HTP that I did, but a small pool of people might.
I use a variety of nutritional supplements with no negative consequences that bring numerous benefits to my health. I am in full support of self-care and self-medicating with supplements and herbs, and an advocate for the natural health field, but I want people to be aware that they must do their research and be an informed consumer before trying any natural therapy approach.
Natural therapies can be just as powerful as a prescription drug and should be taken seriously. Manipulating neurotransmitters, hormones, stress hormones, etc., whether it is through prescription drugs or natural means, is very serious business and there is always the potential for unexpected or negative results. Before engaging in these types of therapies, I encourage you to always do your homework and have a thorough understanding of all that is involved and all possible outcomes.
Be aware that not everyone responds to natural therapies like 5-HTP in the same manner. We are all unique biochemically and there are a variety of factors that can impact how the body responds. Monitor your body and symptoms closely and be in communication with a physician who is knowledgeable about amino acid therapies. However, one of the primary reasons it’s important to do your own research and be very informed is because even many health practitioners who engage in amino acid therapies may not have the level of expertise that is needed to address complex situations such as what occurred for me. You need to do some searching to find one and need to be in the know yourself in case they are not.
Always monitor your responses and symptoms and immediately discontinue use if your condition worsens. It’s also a good idea to make friends and family members aware anytime you start a new therapy that can affect your mental health, in case your perceptions become impaired by treatment side effects. They can let you know if they observe any unusual changes in personality or mood that might not be obvious to you.
Possible Reasons for 5-HTP Side Effects
In my own life, there are many possible factors that could have contributed to the situation that I experienced.
- I have a severely damaged HPA axis, hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals, from an abusive childhood. My system is damaged and often does not respond as other bodies do to a variety of treatments.
- I had a major exposure to organophosphate herbicides seven years ago that left me with a severely damaged endocrine system, nervous system, and hormones.
- I was going through menopause at the time this occurred and my hormones and adrenals were particularly vulnerable.
- Genetics. I may have inherited something that interferes in addressing the neurotransmitter issue.
- Some unknown factors.
- Each system in the body is interconnected. When you try to jump-start one system and other systems are not functioning as they should, it can result in something totally unexpected.
Because of my professional training and experience in counseling, natural health, nutritional supplements and the depth of knowledge and awareness I have of my own body I was able to handle this situation appropriately and take the steps I needed to take to protect myself and improve the situation quickly. However, this could have been a very dangerous situation for the average bear who doesn’t have the knowledge and awareness that I do. Many people may not have recognized this as 5-HTP side effects or been able to handle the bout of depression effectively and continued to take the supplement. That’s why it’s so important to work with someone who has the ability to recognize these issues if they occur and be sure to educate yourself prior to self-medicating.
Update – February 2011
Since I first wrote this page, I have attended a variety of seminars and classes in which I have learned the reasons I had the experience I had above. 5-HTP side effects can be the result of a variety of issues like the following:
1. The type of urine neurotransmitter testing that I had from Neuroscience is considered by many practitioners to be unreliable and inaccurate. According to a study by Julia Ross, M.A., when urine testing that measures the actual levels of the neurotransmitters is compared to cerebrospinal fluid testing, which is well known to be reliable, the results do not correlate. Julia suggests a simple written questionnaire that she has designed can be a more effective way of identifying neurotransmitter depletion.
Dr. Charles Gant, another neurotransmitter expert, also states in his seminars that urine testing of neurotransmitters tells you nothing about what is going on in the brain. They are unreliable and inaccurate. He recommends using the organic acids test and amino acid plasma test.
2. Another more reliable method of measuring neurotransmitters is with an Organic Acids Test. This is a urine test, but it is not looking at the levels of neurotransmitters in the urine. It looks at byproducts that occur as a result of a deficiency.
I had an Organic Acids test and it indicated that my serotonin levels were normal.
I also had an Amino Acids Plasma test and I had sufficient levels of tryptophan, the amino acid needed to make serotonin.
This indicates that I had no need to even take 5-HTP.
3. 5-HTP increases cortisol levels. This can be detrimental to someone with adrenal gland issues, whose cortisol is too low or too high. I had weak adrenals that didn’t produce enough cortisol when I took this product. It appears that the constant call on cortisol caused my adrenals to deteriorate further.
4. The dosage of 5-HTP is very important. If you take too much, it can produce depression.
5. According to Julia Ross, about 15 percent of serotonin deficient people simply don’t respond well to 5-HTP. When that is the case, then Tryptophan is used.
6. People who are highly anxious, prone to anxiety, have advanced adrenal fatigue, or super-sensitive autonomic nervous systems, are among those who don’t respond well to 5-HTP. Many of my clients with these conditions report a worsening of symptoms with 5-HTP.
7. 5-HTP should be accompanied by P5P, or it can’t make the conversion to serotonin.
What I learned in my classes and seminars is a good example of exactly what I told you further above. 5-HTP side effects occurred because I had taken a supplement without doing enough homework or fully understanding all the possible ramifications.
This is also another illustration of why it is important to work with a knowledgeable health care provider. The provider I was working with didn’t mention any of those things I listed above. It doesn’t make this person a bad provider, it just means there are many different levels of expertise and you must be informed yourself to guide your provider.