The ‘Happy Hormone’ ! How are 5-HTP and Serotonin Used in the Body?
The words Serotonin and 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) strikes fear into any Science-phobic person, but don’t worry this article aims to inform and dispel any complexities in the scientific mechanism of 5-HTP and its role in Serotonin production.
What are the 3 Steps of Serotonin Production?
5-HTP within the body is used to make the hormone Serotonin. This is a three stage process beginning with dietary L-Tryptophan, producing 5-HTP, which finally makes Serotonin.
To begin, what is L-Tryptophan? Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. “Essential” means that we must consume Tryptophan in our diet to ensure we meet our dietary requirements. This is because the body is unable to produce Tryptophan itself. It has a molecular formula of C11H12N2O2 and is found in the body in miniscule quantities. Like any amino acid Tryptophan is used to produce proteins. It can be found in foods such a turkey, dairy products, eggs, seeds and nuts. Dietary amino acid Tryptophan is then absorbed into the blood where it travels to the central nervous system (CNS). The presence and volume of L-Tryptophan is the main rate limiting step in the production of Serotonin, it is classified as “essential” after all. Tryptophan is then converted to 5-Hydroxytryptophan via the addition of a hydroxyl group(-OH). For this to occur it requires the enzyme Tryptophan 5-monooxygenase and cofactors Iron, Magnesium, Calcium, Vitamin B6 and Folic Acid [1.2].
Next is 5-HTP, this can be biologically produced or naturally supplemented. The biological production is converted from Tryptophan, however supplementing skips this step entirely and simply boosts the body’s levels of Serotonin precursor 5-HTP. 5-HTP is not naturally found in foods but is found in a plant called the Griffonia Simplicifolia. This plant is native to regions of Africa particularly spanning from the Liberia to Gabon. It was found to be used in native medicine, treating anything from infertility to nausea. Since this, it has been extensively investigated and has shown to be the richest natural source of 5-HTP. The seeds of the plant are extracted, treated and ground to a powder in order to use in supplement products [1,3] 5-HTP is then converted to 5-HT, or as we know it Serotonin. This requires cofactors Vitamin C, B6, Zinc and Magnesium.
The Final Step refers to Serotonin, which is the neurotransmitter often referred to as the “Happy Hormone”. This stems from its roles in the body, including mood, behavioural and appetite control, among others. The chemical structure of Serotonin is a monoamine, which means it contains only one amine group (-NH2). The neurotransmitter is unable to cross the blood brain barrier and so is entirely dependent upon the presence of L-Tryptophan and 5-HTP in the small intestine and CNS for its production. Surprisingly up to 95% of Serotonin production occurs in the small intestine.
What does Serotonin do in the body?
Low Serotonin levels have been linked with numerous health ailments, including:
- Depression- Depression is believed to be caused by an imbalance in brain chemicals such as Serotonin and Dopamine. Evidence of Serotonin’s part in the pathophysiology of Depression was discovered in the 1960s when they found medication (SSRIs) which increased Serotonin levels in the brain appeared to regulate mood fluctuations.
- ADHD- Is a behavioural disorder which has been clinically shown to be affected by Serotonin. This has also been treated by SSRIs and have shown great improvement in symptoms of the disorder. On average children with ADHD have 50% lower blood levels of Tryptophan, than people without the disorder. Lower Tryptophan means lower Serotonin production .
- Appetite Control and Obesity- ‘Carb’ and ‘Sweet tooth’ cravings are all too familiar, but why? When we eat carbohydrates our body produces Serotonin which causes an increase in mood. This can become a learned response as we are able to become ‘addicted’ to the Serotonin ‘high’ that comes with eating carbohydrate dense and high sugar foods . Supplementing Serotonin reduces the desire to eat these weight-gaining foods.
- Fibromyalgia- Fibromyalgia (FG) is an incredibly painful disorder that causes a number of symptoms including lack of sleep, fatigue, anxiety, joint problems and pain. People with FG have naturally lower Serotonin levels than those without FG. Naturally boosting them via the diet and the use of a supplements has been shown to be hugely beneficial in reducing symptoms of the disorder.
Studies have also shown they have an effect on migraines, chronic headaches, insomnia, sleep disorders, binge eating, night terrors and many others.
How to naturally boost your Serotonin levels?
The best way to supplement your Serotonin levels is a daily 5-HTP supplement. By taking 5-HTP it bypasses the dominant rate limiting step, that is the presence of L-Tryptophan. 5-HTP is the natural extraction of the Griffonia Simplicifolia plant that when taken orally is absorbed very efficiently (~70%). The benefit of taking 5-HTP over L-Tryptophan (dietary of supplementary) is that all of the absorbed 5-HTP is used to make Serotonin, whereas a portion of Tryptophan is used to make Vitamin B3, and the rest to produce Serotonin.
The optimal dose is between 50-200mg a day dependent on your needs. We advise taking the lowest dose first and then increasing the dosage if needed. Please note that you should never exceed the stated dose.
You are advised to take 5-HTP alongside Vitamin B6, Zinc or Magnesium as this increases the conversion rate to Serotonin. Great food sources of Vitamin B6 include sunflower seeds, sunflower oils, lentils, soybeans and oily fish. Food sources of Magnesium include nuts, soya, seaweeds avocado and sweetcorn. Lastly, Zinc is found in very few foods, including red meats, dairy, egg yolks and seafood. If these foods are not appealing, or you do not consume them for any reason they are all available in supplement form .
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- Collingwood,J. (2012). Brains of Children with ADHD Show Protein Deficiency. Available: http://psychcentral.com/lib/brains-of-children-with-adhd-show-protein-deficiency/.
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- DK London. (2015). Vitamins and Minerals Supplement Charts. In: Steel.S Neal's Yard Remedies Healing Foods. London: Vance, P. Pg.338-341.