5-HTP: A Natural Calming, Cooling, Weight Loss Accelerator
Once again, you find yourself opening the refrigerator looking for something—ANYTHING—to eat. You bypass the celery and carrots and choose that leftover pizza, brownie, bagel, or bag of chips.
Only, it’s not lunchtime, it’s not dinnertime, it’s not even breakfast. Come to think of it, you aren’t even hungry. You simply want to eat.
How often has this happened to you? You eat for virtually any reason except hunger. You are bored. You’ve had a stressful day. You are procrastinating. You are ticked off at your spouse, your kids, your boss, or your life.
Basically, food consumes your thoughts and overtakes your willpower. You start to wonder, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I stop eating?”
If only you could stop the overeating, you could not only stop gaining weight, but maybe you’d actually lose weight. Better still, you could regain control over your eating and your life!
As it turns out, this may be more possible than you may think.
Numerous double-blind studies(1, 2) have shown that the amino acid 5-hydroxytryptophan (“5-HTP”) is highly effective in easing anxiety and depression. However, over the past decade or so, more and more studies are coming out that show 5-HTP may be a valuable weight loss tool as well.
The question is, if this is true, why? Is it related to 5-HTP’s stress-reducing properties or something else entirely? And is this something the average person can take advantage of right now?
Let’s head to the research to find out.
Italy Leads the Weigh…
Most of the truly compelling research around 5-HTP and weight loss has come from Italy. In the first study(3) from that country, researchers ran a double-blind, placebo-controlled study on 19 obese women.
Half the subjects were given 5-HTP (8 mg/kg/day) for five weeks, while the control group received a placebo. No diet restrictions were given.
At the end of the study period, those taking the 5-HTP were found to have statistically greater weight loss than the control group. They also consumed significantly fewer calories and carbohydrates than those in the placebo group.
In short, those taking 5-HTP ate less starchy, sugary stuff, and ate less food overall. No wonder they lost more weight!
This same research team then did a second study(4) to determine if 5-HTP would have the same results with calorie restrictions in place. Also double-blind and placebo-controlled, researchers randomly assigned participants to take either 5-HTP or a placebo for two six-week periods. No dietary restrictions were made during the first six weeks.
During the second six weeks, a 1,200-calorie diet was recommended and carbohydrate-rich snacks were prohibited. Patients taking 5-HTP lost an average of 4.39 pounds the first six weeks and 11.63 pounds the second six weeks. Patients taking the placebo lost only 0.62 pounds and 1.87 pounds, respectively.
At first glance, you may be tempted to think that a diet that calorie-restrictive and carb-free would naturally lead to weight loss. But you have to factor in the difference in weight loss. The 5-HTP group lost 16 pounds in three months versus just 2.5 pounds in the placebo group. Now that’s impressive!
More recently, researchers from the University of Pavia in Pavia, Italy, tested the use of a sublingual 5-HTP spray on 27 healthy, but overweight, adult women. In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study(5), half of the participants used a 5-HTP oral spray five times a day for eight weeks.
At the end of the study, researchers found that those women using the 5-HTP spray had significantly greater levels of satiety (i.e., they felt more full) than the control group. The 5-HTP group also had a lower body mass index (BMI) and greater decrease in hip circumference than the control group.
Researchers concluded that 5-HTP can help with appetite control for overweight women following a weight loss program.
So, let’s get this straight. 5-HTP helped shrink their hips, decreased overall body mass, and kept them full? Now THAT’s exactly the type of natural solution we are looking for.
The only question we have is that while these studies are compelling and utilize the gold standard in research, they were done with just a handful of participants, all of whom were significantly overweight. It would be interesting to see if a study done with a larger number of participants, or one using people who only have 10 to 15 pounds to lose, would yield the same results.
It Can’t Be Magic…
Even with the low number of participants in the studies cited above, it would be difficult to argue the conclusions reached regarding the use of 5-HTP to help control appetite when used as part of a weight loss program.
That is to say, while it won’t make the calories magically disappear from the five pieces of pizza that you gobbled down, it may help you turn them down in the first place. But how does it do this?
It has to do with 5-HTP’s ability to increase serotonin levels in the brain.
Within your brain, serotonin often inhibits the firing of neurons, which dampens many of your behaviors. In fact, serotonin acts as a kind of chemical restraint system.
When it fails, or there is a serotonin deficiency, results can include binge eating, irritability, and anxiety. Additionally, serotonin deficiency is associated with the brain’s perception of starvation and hunger.
Serotonin is produced within the brain from the essential amino acid tryptophan and 5-HTP, which is made from tryptophan. If your diet is deficient in tryptophan (needed to form 5-HTP), your brain thinks it’s starving.
By supplementing with 5-HTP, you may be helping to overcome serotonin deficiency, which may help to ease overeating and curb appetite.
How to Take 5-HTP for a Test Drive…
Should you decide to add 5-HTP to your weight loss plan, please do keep your expectations in check. While it may help to take the edge off a stressful day, it won’t make the traffic go away or keep you from procrastinating.
Similarly, 5-HTP can help ease cravings and control appetite, but it is not a magic wand full of willpower and calorie erasers. You will still need to maintain a reasonable caloric intake full of nutrient-dense whole foods and engage in moderate daily exercise. And, as always, consult with your doctor before experimenting with any new herbs or supplements.
Be sure to take care when choosing as well as using a 5-HTP product. It should be free of preservatives, fillers, binders, excipients, flow agents, shellacs, coloring agents, gluten, yeast, lactose, and other allergens. Ideally, you will also be able to find independent analysis done by a third party to verify the active ingredients and identify any contaminants.
When taking 5-HTP, aim for 50–100 mg twice a day, 20–30 minutes prior to a meal and with 50-100 mg vitamin B6 to ensure the timely conversion of 5-HTP to serotonin.
If you experience side effects such as nausea, lower your dosage for the first few weeks as your body adjusts.
1 Agren, H. et al. “Low brain uptake of L-5-hydroxytryptophan in major depression: A positron emission tomography study on patients and healthy volunteers.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 1991; 83:449-455.
2 Zmilacher, K., et al. 1988. “L-5-hydroxytryptophan alone and in combination with a peripheral decarboxylase inhibitor in the treatment of depression.” Neuropsychobiology 1988; 20:28-35.
3 Cairella M, et al. “The effects of oral 5-hydroxytryptophan administration on feeding behavior in obese adult female subjects.” J Neural Transm. 1989; 76(2):109-17.
4 Cairella M, et al. “Effects of 5-hydroxytryptophan on eating behavior and adherence to dietary prescriptions in obese adult subjects.” Adv Exp Med Biol 1991; 294:591-3.
5 Rondanelli, M, et al. “Satiety and amino-acid profile in overweight women after a new treatment using a natural plant extract sublingual spray formulation.” Int J Obes (London). 2009 Oct; 33(10):1174-82.