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5-HTP & Weight Loss: Effective Or A Crock?

Updated on October 12, 2009

With about half of the adults in the United States classified as overweight or obese, it certainly seems that everyone is looking for the key to easy weight loss. Is 5-HTP the answer?

5-HTP is extracted from seeds of the African plant, Griffonia simplifico. Suggested conditions that benefit from supplementation include weight loss and obesity, fibromyalgia, insomnia, depression and migraine headaches.

5-HTP is a metabolite of the essential amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan was widely available in health food stores until 1990. An outbreak of a serious blood disorder was linked to tryptophan supplements and so all products were pulled from the shelves. The outbreak was later linked to a contamination during manufacturing, not the tryptophan itself.

Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin. Serotonin is involved in functions such as sleep, emotional stability, pain sensitivity, appetite and addictive cravings. One reason 5-HTP is preferred over tryptophan is it bypasses a conversion step which limits the rate of serotonin production. By taking the preformed 5-HTP, more serotonin is produced.

Tryptophan and serotonin levels drop substantially in the body when people diet and cut back on calories. This decrease can be associated with carbohydrate cravings and binge eating. 5-HTP can help remedy the situation by increasing serotonin levels. Some clinical studies have shown a tendency to decrease appetite and promote weight loss in obese individuals but not to a level where it can be considered a treatment for obesity.

5-HTP may also have additional benefits by increasing blood levels of leptin. Leptin is a hormone thought to have appetite-suppressing effects in the brain and fat-burning activity in cells.

A typical dosage for weight loss is between 600-900 mg daily. 5-HTP is well absorbed from an oral dose with about 70% winding up in the bloodstream. Mild nausea has been reported in some individuals. Starting with low doses (50 mg, 3 times daily) and increasing gradually can help minimize nausea.

5-HTP is a relatively safe supplement when taken in the recommended dosages. A family of contaminants known as "Peak X" has been found in some 5-HTP supplements. A concern exists that a disorder similar to the one from contaminated tryptophan supplements could arise. Although this is unlikely as 5-HTP is extracted from plant sources. 5-HTP should not be taken by people using or who have recently used antidepressants, weight control drugs or other serotonin-modifying substances.

5-HTP does appear to be a safe and marginally effective adjunct to weight loss. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet for losing weight. 5-HTP or any other supplement does not take the place of healthy diet and exercise.

To help lose weight, incorporate regular exercise. Eat a healthy whole foods diet with emphasis on whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables. Adequate fiber can be beneficial in losing weight. Cut back on processed foods. Watch your fat intake. It's not just quantity but quality. Minimize saturated and trans fats while replacing them with non-hydrogenated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated ones. Substitute full fat dairy products with low and non-fat varieties.

Gradual changes can stick longer than immediate drastic ones. To reach and maintain a goal weight, the dietary and lifestyle habits employed need to be something you can live with forever.

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