To Your Health

I sometimes take 5-HTP to help me sleep and am surprised at how it seems to help me with irregularity. Why would it help the GI tract?

Q. I sometimes take 5-HTP to help me sleep and am surprised at how it seems to help me with irregularity. Why would it help the GI tract?

A. 5-Hydroxytryptophan is an amino acid, but not one of the 20 amino acids that we use to make protein. Even though it is not made into protein, 5-HTP is very important because we use it to make serotonin. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that Prozac and other well-known antidepressants have such a profound effect on. In turn, we make 5-HTP from L-tryptophan, one of the amino acids termed "essential" because we have to get it in our diet.

Until the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of tryptophan because of contamination, it was used as a remedy for insomnia, headaches, depression, PMS, overeating, and several other maladies. When it disappeared from the shelves of health-food stores in 1989, 5-HTP quickly became available as a replacement. It is still used because tryptophan, though available, is hard to get.

There are some advantages to 5-HTP over tryptophan and at least one disadvantage. First of all, because it is one step closer to becoming serotonin, 5-HTP is effective at lower doses than tryptophan. And, although tryptophan is safe if uncontaminated, it is produced by bacterial fermentation, which means that contamination is still a risk, while 5-HTP is relatively easy to obtain as a pure plant extract.

The disadvantage of 5-HTP, and the primary distinction between it and tryptophan, is that tryptophan supplements allow the body to retain control over the production of 5-HTP. Absorption of 5-HTP is nearly complete, so a supplement of 5-HTP is like forcing the body to make that much 5-HTP from tryptophan. Most tryptophan is used in our body as part of protein and ordinarily only a small percentage is converted to 5-HTP. A supplement of 50 mg of 5-HTP is considered the equivalent of a supplement of 500 mg or more of tryptophan.

Serotonin was once thought to operate almost exclusively in the brain, but in 1998 Dr. Michael Gershon published a book entitled The Second Brain in which he describes the workings of the gut under the control of a nervous system with about the same number of nerve cells as our thinking brain. This second brain also uses the same neurotransmitters as the brain in our head and actually uses at least 20 times more serotonin. Realizing that our two brains must cooperate to regulate digestion and elimination explains why 5-HTP supplements, taken as a sleep aid, could be helpful for irregularity, since serotonin can affect the "gut brain" even more than the "head brain."

Research dating back to the mid-1980s suggests that serotonin is intimately involved in gut function and so a search began for drugs that would control serotonin metabolism in the gut. Because a natural product such as 5-HTP cannot be patented, research on it is not likely to return a profit. Prescription drugs, however, can be immensely profitable. Understandably from a financial standpoint, a prescription remedy for such gut problems as irritable bowel syndrome will have 10 times more literature citations than a natural remedy such as 5-HTP. Even when it is safer, less expensive, and has fewer side effects, a natural remedy typically cannot compete with a lucrative prescription remedy.

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