The History of 5-HTP, Serotonin and Tryptophan

The History of 5-HTP, Serotonin and Tryptophan

5-HTP, and Tryptophan are the precursors of the neurotransmitter Serotonin. Serotonin is known as the “happy hormone” as it is responsible for mood control among other things. From humble beginnings in Africa,

the Griffonia Simplicifolia plant and 5-HTP has catapulted its self into one of the most desired and highly sought after supplements.

The History and Discovery of Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid used as the building blocks of protein. ‘Essential’ simply means that we cannot produce it within our own bodies so we must consume in it in our diets. L-Tryptophan is the form that is present in the body. The “L-” stands for Levorotation which describes its structure, however the “D-” form (Dextrorotation) also exists but is not compatible with humans.

Tryptophan was discovered by Nobel Prize winner Frederick Hopkins in the early 20th Century. He founded Tryptophan, described its structure, documented it and saw that we were unable to produce it ourselves. Later work that developed from Hopkin’s discovery was conducted by Eijkman. He fed a diet lacking in “accessory food factors” including Tryptophan. He did so by feeding rats all the Macronutrient components of milk such as fat, protein and carbohydrates, but nothing else. They found that the growth of the rat was stunted. This was the founding idea that “accessory food factors” or Vitamins/Minerals/Amino Acids were essential for growth, of which Tryptophan was one [1].

The History and Discovery and use of 5-HTP

5-HTP is the hydroxylized version of Tryptophan. Both 5-HTP and Tryptophan are rate limiting steps in the production of Serotonin. An absence of either one of these components can cause a rapid decline in Serotonin.[2] 5-HTP was discovered to be the primary active ingredient of the Griffonia Simplicfolia plant which has been used in native medicine for many years. The plant is native to Western and Central Africa particularly Liberia and Gabon. In Africa there was little knowledge as to what was curing their ailments, but they did know it worked time and time again. In humans 5-HTP rich Griffonia Simplicfolia was given as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. Additionally, it was given for pain, sickle cell anaemia, burns, kidney disease, vomiting, diarrhea and tooth decay. 5-HTP is also given to animals, particularly Chickens to cure lice [3].

The History and Discovery of Serotonin

Serotonin is the hormone needed to alleviate symptoms of certain diseases and disorders including Epilepsy, Schizophrenia, PMS and Parkinson’s Disease. Serotonin was discovered in the 1930’s by Italian scientist Vittorio Erspamer, he called it Enteramine. His area of work focused on the contraction of smooth muscle found in the blood vessels and the gastrointestinal tract. Erspamer was particularly interested in the Enterochromaffin cells. Unbeknownst to Erspamer these are the cells that produced Serotonin. It wasn’t until 1948 that scientists Page, Rapport and Green named it Serotonin. It was called this as it was extracted out of the serum of Ox’s blood, hence “ser”. It wasn’t until 1953 that Serotonin was found in brain tissue. This led to masses of scientific papers on the presence and function of Serotonin in the brain. It also led to understanding of Serotonergic neurons of Central Nervous System [4,2]. Years later in the 1950’s pioneering antidepressants were produced working off the study of scientists before them, then in the 1960s they realised that Serotonin was the active neurotransmitter used to reduce the symptoms[5].

The Uses of 5-HTP Today

Now we have a greater understanding of Serotonin and 5-HTP’s role in the alleviation of certain disorders. The first use of 5-HTP was in psychological disorders such as Depression and Schizophrenia, as they attempted to find a natural alternative to chemical laden depression medication. We now have evidence to show that 5-HTP can be effective in the treatment of the following diseases and disorders:

  • Chronic Pain
  • Migraines
  • Obesity
  • Insomnia
  • Narcolepsy
  • Binge eating
  • Fibromyalgia [6].

If this article interests you please read and discover our extensive library of articles on the subject of 5-HTP.

  1. NNDB. (2014). Frederick Hopkins. Available:
  2. Grubb, BP. (1997). Cardiac Arrhythmias-Neurocardiogenic Syncope: What Role for Serotonin?. In: Grubb,BP Cardiac Arrhythmias. Oxford: Wiley and Sons. Pg. 411-421.
  3. Pathak,K. (2010). A review on Griffonia simplicifollia - an ideal herbal antidepressant. International Journal of Pharmacy and Life Sciences. 1 (3), Pg. 174-181.
  4. Whitaker-Azmitia,PM. (1999). The Discovery of Serotonin and its Role in Neuroscience. Neuropsychopharmacology. 21 (2), Pg.2-8.
  5. Birch.H. (2013). Serotonin. Available:
  6. Birdsall, TC. (1998). 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor.. Alternative Medicine Review : A Journal of Clinical Therapeutics. 3 (4), Pg. 271-280.
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