What does 5-HTP do anyway? When I first started reading about this supplement it was touted as a natural antidepressant. As my understanding increased, It became clear that it’s not that simple. 5-HTP is an amino acid naturally made by the body from Tryptophan. To assume that 5-HTP is an antidepressant would be nearly as reductionistic as assuming SSRI’s cure depression. SSRI’s are a class of medication that increases the availability of serotonin at the brain synapses (e.g. Zoloft, Lezapro, Paxil). Both 5-HTP and SSRI’s increase serotonin availability in the brain. 5-HTP does this by increasing overall amount of serotonin produced. SSRI’s, on the other hand, slow down the MAOA gene in order to increase the levels of serotonin at the synapse. A slower MAOA gene limits the “reuptake” of serotonin. Do not use 5-HTP if you are taking an SSRI. If you want to read more about SSRI’s I would suggest reading A Mind of Your Own by Dr. Kelly Brogan.
Your reaction to 5-HTP will be different based on how your genes are functioning. Personally, I believe my MAOA gene tends to operate fast, meaning that my brain potentially clears out the serotonin too quickly (among other things). This doesn’t generally make me depressed, but I think there are a couple of effects that are interesting.
I crave carbs (in the evening)
I wake up a couple times per night, and sometimes I can’t get back to sleep
Let’s assume for a moment that everything we crave or desire has a positive motive - our cravings are doing the best they can to fulfill a perceived metabolic or biochemical need. Our cravings have our best interests in mind! Why would a fast MAOA gene make me crave carbs, especially at night? It is an interesting problem. I generally only crave carbs in the evening. I crave carbs right before bed, or even right after dinner. The craving feels insatiable. If something takes too much willpower I have to ask the question, what else is going on here? We humans should be able to eat dinner, go to bed 2-3 hours later, and sleep through the night. Our liver has been storing glycogen all day to sustain our blood sugar through the night. I don’t doubt that my glycogen stores are sufficient. I eat well balanced moderate carbohydrate meals about every 4 hours or so. In short, I generally take immaculate care of my blood sugar regulation.
If carb cravings aren’t about blood sugar, what else could it be? Carbohydrates - via insulin - is how serotonin crosses the blood brain barrier. I posit that my body is not craving carbs for blood sugar, but for serotonin. Why does it want all of this serotonin? Serotonin is a precursor for melatonin. My brain wants to create melatonin in preparation for a great night sleep. To meet this need the only signal my body has to give is hunger. Most of the time our cravings aren’t about a lack of willpower, they are just misinterpreted needs.
What does 5-HTP have to do with it? 5-HTP increases levels of serotonin in the brain without the facilitation of insulin. If I have an early dinner between 5pm and 6pm I take 200 mg time-release 5HTP an hour after dinner. If I eat dinner later I’ll take 200 mg time-release a half-hour before dinner. This seems to demolishes my bedtime carb cravings while simultaneously supporting my sleep. If your fast MAOA gene is clearing your serotonin too quickly 5-HTP could do the same for you. If you want to learn more about gene expression I would suggest reading the book Dirty Genes by Dr. Ben Lynch.