Should You Use 5-HTP or Melatonin
5 HTP is the precursor of serotonin and serotonin is the precursor of melatonin. Therefore, both supplements can be used as sleep aid. Find out which of these supplements is better for treating insomnia and other sleep disorders.
by Brad Chase
5 HTP is 5-hydroxytryptophan, an amino acid synthesized in the body from L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid. Since 5 HTP is not found in foods, the 5 HTP found in dietary supplements is extracted from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia, a plant native to West Africa.
Once ingested 5 HTP can easily cross the blood-brain barrier. When it gets into the central nervous system, 5 HTP is converted into serotonin or 5 HT in a single step.
Therefore, the sole goal of 5 HTP supplementation is to increase the levels of 5 HT in the brain.
5 HTP provides clear advantages over tryptophan as the dietary supplement of choice to help increase serotonin levels. It crosses into the brain more easily; it is solely used in the body to produce serotonin; and it acts faster than tryptophan.
As a dietary supplement, 5 HTP is sold as an appetite suppressant, antidepressant and sleeping aid.
All of the effects of 5 HTP (both therapeutic and side effects) are due to its ability to increase serotonin levels in the body but especially in the brain. Therefore, since serotonin can improve the quality of sleep, 5 HTP can be used to treat insomnia.
Melatonin is a neurohormone released from the pineal gland in the brain.
It is known as the hormone most important to the circadian cycle in humans but it is also a powerful antioxidant which protects genetic materials inside cells.
Melatonin is sold as a dietary supplement for treating insomnia since it promotes sleep.
Humans are not the only animals that depend on the daily variation in melatonin levels to determine when to sleep and when to stay away. Melatonin fulfils the same function in many animals too. It even serves as a similar purpose in some plants.
Examples of plants that contain melatonin are St. John’s Wort and Feverfew. It is also found in foods such as bananas, cherries, grapes, rice, cereal and also in wine and beer. However, dietary sources of melatonin does not increase the plasma level of the hormone. Therefore, melatonin supplements are needed to improve its blood levels.
The sequence of synthetic reactions that produces melatonin in the body starts with tryptophan.
Tryptophan is then converted to 5 HTP and 5 HTP converted to serotonin. Melatonin is only one intermediate away from serotonin. Therefore, it is possible to use 5 HTP supplements to increase melatonin levels.
In fact, some of the positive effects of 5 HTP for people suffering from insomnia are due to the melatonin levels increased by supplying this precursor amino acid.
In humans, melatonin is secreted into the blood from the pineal gland when it is dark. Although the pineal gland is at the center of the brain, it is located outside the blood-brain barrier, therefore, melatonin is easily released into the blood.
Although it was once thought that melatonin was solely responsible for the circadian rhythm, new studies have shown that it is only part of the system.
In fact, melatonin is only one part of a complex system that controls the sleep-wake cycle. Although it contributes to drowsiness and reducing the body’s core temperature, the cycle is mostly regulated by the suprachiasmatic nuclei in the central nervous system.
Melatonin production because regular early in life but as children become adolescents, the onset of release of the hormone gets delayed. This directly leads to late sleeping hours and prolonged waking hours.
In the elderly, melatonin production reaches its peak very early during the night. This is the reason, senior citizens sleep early in the evening and wake up during the night.
In addition, melatonin production falls as we grow older, and this can cause sleep disturbances such as insomnia.
Melatonin increases the length of the REM (rapid eye movement) part of the sleep cycle. Therefore, high doses of the supplement may cause vivid dreaming. Some hallucinogenic drugs trigger this property of melatonin even while the user is awake.
Melatonin is safe and well tolerated especially when taken for a short while (3 months and less).
However, high doses (3 mg per day or greater) may cause side effects such as headache, nightmare, drowsiness in the morning, nausea, irritability, hypothermia, hormone imbalance and reduced blood flow to the brain.
Melatonin is not recommended for children younger than 13 years since its levels have profound effect on human development at that stage.
In simple terms, insomnia is sleeplessness. It is defined in medical literature as the inability to initiate and/or maintain sleep at night especially when accompanied by mental impairment and fatigue during the day.
Insomnia is usually a sign or symptom of medical and psychiatry disorders.
Insomnia may be transient (last for about a week), acute (last for about a month) or chronic (last for longer than a month).
Transient insomnia is caused by changes in the environment of the sufferer or recent events. It often resolves when the subject adapts to these changes.
Acute insomnia often results from stress. Patients experiencing acute insomnia have ample time to sleep but have difficulty initiating and/or maintaining sleep.
Chronic insomnia is caused by high levels of stress or by an underlying medical or psychiatric condition. Its main symptoms include mental and physical fatigue and even double vision and hallucination.
Other causes of insomnia besides stress and underlying diseases include:
Some experts also believe that magnesium deficiency can also cause insomnia.
Besides 5 HTP (and L-tryptophan), other amino acids used in the treatment of insomnia include L-glycine, L-aspartate and L-arginine.
There are different methods of treating insomnia with varying success. It is believed that behavioral therapy and lifestyle modifications are just as effective as medications for treating insomnia.
A long list of drugs that act on the central nervous system are used to treat insomnia. These include antidepressants, benzodiazepines, antihistamines, antipsychotics, opioids and other sedatives not belonging to any of these drug classes.
It should be noted that some of these drugs can cause insomnia too either in large doses or by their rebound effects.
Melatonin is sold as drug, dietary supplement and food additive to help promote sleep. Its normal dosage is 1 – 3 mg taken an hour before going to bed. Even doses as low as 0.1 mg can improve the quality of sleep and doses as high as 5 – 6 mg have been used for treating insomnia.
Different studies have found melatonin effective for treating insomnia especially when caused by some primary sleeping disorders. It is especially effective for older adults since melatonin production is significantly reduced the older we get.
However, a review of available published study show that melatonin is not even effective for most primary sleep disorders at least when in short-term therapy (1 month or less).
It may help correct a circadian rhythm disorder called delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). DSPS is not strictly a form of insomnia but a re-arrangement of sleep time (sleeping in the morning and being active at night).
Melatonin reduces sleep onset latency (time taken to fall asleep at night) in people with DSPS than in those experiencing insomnia.
Melatonin may induce sleep but it is not really a sedative.
It does not work for insomnia patients who have normal or high levels of endogenous melatonin. This dietary supplement is only effective for patients with low melatonin production.
Furthermore, although melatonin has been found effective for increasing sleep time in people experiencing sleep restriction or deprivation, it does not improve sleep in those suffering from secondary sleep restrictions such as jet lag and shiftwork disorder.
All of the actions ascribed to 5 HTP are due to its ability to increase the production and level of serotonin in the brain.
Because serotonin is a precursor of melatonin, 5 HTP supplementation can also increase melatonin levels and it may produce most of the effects of melatonin described above. However, 5 HTP (through serotonin) affects sleep in other ways beyond increasing melatonin production.
The role of serotonin in the sleep-wake cycle is rather complex. For one, serotonin neurons are largely silent during the REM phase of sleep. This suggests that low serotonin levels are needed for this sleep phase. When awake, serotonin actually assists noradrenaline and acetylcholine in promoting mental alertness.
Still, serotonin is also a sleeping-promoting neurotransmitter in the brain.
This is because serotonin can either facilitate sleep or wakefulness depending on the area of the brain where it increasingly activates.
When serotonin production falls in the body, the levels of excitatory neurotransmitters increase in the brain to compensate for this. In addition, low serotonin levels cause other medical conditions like depression and anxiety which disrupts sleep.
Therefore, it is important to return serotonin levels back to normal so that the sleep-wake cycle can work normally.
Low serotonin levels cause sleep disorders including insomnia and sleep apnea. In fact, sleep deprivation reduces the sensitivity of serotonin neurons.
Therefore, 5 HTP (through serotonin) increases the quality of sleep and also increases the onset of sleep. It also prevents sleep disruption and allow the maintenance of deep sleep. It does all these by increasing the most important stages of sleep.
The better sleep aid between 5 HTP and melatonin depends on how each individual handles both supplement. However, 5 HTP should provide greater benefits insomniacs than melatonin.
Since insomnia is often a symptom of some other medical and psychiatric conditions, it is usually accompanied by secondary sleep disorders which are not well treated with melatonin.
In addition, melatonin is only a periodic neurohormone in the body. This means that its best effect is to regulate the onset and not duration of sleep. Therefore, melatonin is best for treating insomniacs who want to sleep early.
5 HTP, on the other hand, can promote deep sleep and block sleep disruption. Therefore, it produces more restful sleeps without prolonging the length of sleep.
Since 5 HTP is converted to serotonin, a precursor of melatonin, it can reproduce most of the effects of melatonin. This means that when 5 HTP is converted to serotonin, it gains all the sleep-promoting effect of serotonin and when the synthesis proceeds to melatonin, it gets all the benefits of melatonin.
Of course, the extent of conversion of 5 HTP to melatonin may be reduced or delayed given that it needs to go through serotonin, an important neurotransmitter in the brain. But 5 HTP can be used in the body to form melatonin without depending on the day-night periodic shift in melatonin secretion from the pineal gland.
Lastly, 5 HTP can help treat disorders caused by low serotonin levels which may also disrupt sleep.
Therefore, by relieving anxiety, depression and even perception of chronic pain, 5 HTP promotes restful sleep better than melatonin.
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