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5 HTP and Anxiety

Anxiety disorders involve GABA pathway as well as serotonin pathway in the brain but these two are linked together. Since 5 HTP increases serotonin level in the brain it may provide some benefits for people suffering from anxiety disorders. Read on to find out if this assumption is right.
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Why 5 HTP?

5 HTP is the common name given to the naturally occurring amino acid called 5-hydroxytryptophan. It is synthesized from L-tryptophan, one of the essential amino acids in the body.

5 HTP is known to be the direct precursor of serotonin or 5 HT.

Even though it is an amino acid, 5 HTP has no dietary source. Rather, it is extracted from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia, an African plant. This is the usual source of the active ingredients used in 5 HTP dietary supplements.

5 HTP supplements are better than tryptophan supplements for increasing the level of serotonin in the brain for a number of reasons. First, 5 HTP is solely used to synthesize serotonin in the body while tryptophan is an amino acid used in the body to make different proteins.

Secondly, 5 HTP crosses the blood-brain barrier more readily than tryptophan. Unlike tryptophan that shares the same transport mechanism with other amino acids such as leucine, isoleucine and valine, 5 HTP does not compete with other amino acids to cross into the brain.

Lastly, the amount of tryptophan obtained from diet is low. It is estimated that tryptophan accounts for 1% of the amino acids in dietary proteins.

Therefore, high protein diets do not necessarily mean high tryptophan levels in the brain.

Rather, carbohydrates are needed to reduce the competition tryptophan faces from other amino acids. On the other hand, most of the 5 HTP supplied in dietary supplements get through to the brain and since the first step in serotonin synthesis (the conversion of tryptophan to 5 HTP) has been skipped, 5 HTP provides better results than tryptophan.

Once it gets to the central nervous system, 5 HTP is converted to 5 HT in a single step by a decarboxylase enzyme. This conversion is promoted by vitamin B6 which acts as a cofactor to the enzyme.

5 HTP and 5 HT

Although most of the serotonin or 5 HT produced in the body are synthesized and released outside of the central nervous system, 5 HT cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. Therefore, the serotonin that produces psychoactive effects on the central nervous system is synthesized from the 5 HTP that gets inside the brain.

The enterochromaffin cells of the gastrointestinal tract are the other site of serotonin secretion in the body. In fact, 90% of the serotonin produced in the body are released from these cells. Once released into the gut, serotonin promotes intestinal movement.

For storage and transportation outside of the central nervous system, platelets bind to serotonin.

Therefore, in the blood, serotonin acts as a vasoconstrictor. It also promotes blood clotting and speed up the process of healing by acting as a growth factor.

Elsewhere in the body, serotonin also acts on the cardiovascular, endocrine and musculoskeletal systems.

Serotonin receptors are responsible for mediating all the effects of serotonin. There are 7 major classes of serotonin receptors and each of them can produce either excitatory or inhibitory responses.

These receptors are also responsible for the actions of other neurotransmitters such as glutamate, GABA, acetylcholine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine. In the endocrine system, these receptors also provide similar effects on hormones such as cortisol, prolactin, oxytocin, vasopressin and substance P.

In the central nervous system, serotonin is most noted for controlling mood, appetite and sleep and for also contributing to memory and learning. Therefore, 5 HTP can be used as an antidepressant, appetite suppressant and sleep aid.

By improving mood and promoting sleep, 5 HTP can relieve the symptoms of anxiety disorders by increasing the synthesis of serotonin in the brain.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a general word used to refer to anxiety disorders.

The 4 Components of Anxiety
  • Fear or mental apprehension
  • Tension or physical apprehension
  • Physical symptoms of anxiety
  • Dissociative anxiety

Anxiety disorders come with a spectrum of physical symptoms ranging from nervousness to terror. These symptoms can happen continuously or come and go depending on its trigger.

More than serotonin, studies have shown that anxiety disorders are linked to low levels of GABA.

GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, and drugs that increase its levels in the brain can be used to treat anxiety.

GABA is the target of anxiolytics, drugs used in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Even antidepressants such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders by acting on GABA receptors instead of on serotonin neurons.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

The 3 major types of anxiety disorders are generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder and phobic disorder.

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder – this is a chronic anxiety disorder in which anxiety is life-long and not caused by specific triggers. Rather, the fear and apprehension experienced by people who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder are non-specific and characterized by worry of everyday events.
  • Panic Disorder – This is characterized by brief but sudden bouts of terror experienced as shaking, nausea, dizziness, confusion and difficulty breathing. Although the triggers for panic disorder are specific, they are not always obvious.
  • Phobic Disorder – This is a large group of anxiety disorders defined by the terror and anxiety triggered by very specific triggers which are almost always physical manifestations of objects that have the potential to be dangerous.

Other forms of anxiety disorders include OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), separation anxiety and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Causes and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety and depression goes hand-in-hand. Both can be caused alcohol consumption and by dependence on stimulants such as caffeine and benzodiazepines.

Anxiety and panic attacks are common manifestations of acute withdrawal syndrome of these psychoactive agents.

The amygdala is the area of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety. In people with anxiety disorders, the connections of the amygdala to adjacent areas of the brain have been shown to be different.

Lastly, stress can also cause anxiety disorders. Chronic illness is also a major cause of stress.

Anxiety disorders are usually chronic medical conditions even though they usually show up when the sufferer is exposed to the triggers. The most common physical symptoms of anxiety disorders are headache, palpitations, rapid heartbeat, hypertension, spasm, sweating and fatigue.

Anxiety disorders are also linked to sexual dysfunction, although in some cases it is not clear if it is a symptom of anxiety or one of its causes.

Treatment for Anxiety

SSRIs are the major medications used in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Sometimes SNRIs (serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) are also used. When these fail, benzodiazepines are prescribed but because of their serious side effects, benzodiazepines are recommended for only short-term therapy.

In alternative medicine, exercise, rest and abstinence from stimulants are recommended for treating anxiety.

Herbs such as St. John’s Wort are also used because they increase the level of serotonin in the brain.

However, most experts believe psychotherapy to be superior to all forms of medication in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Some studies have found that a combination of both treatment approaches provide better results than either of them alone.

Using 5 HTP for Anxiety

In a 1987, a double-blind clinical study was done to access the efficacy of 5 HTP, clomipramine (a tricyclic antidepressant) and placebo in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

This study recruited 45 patients diagnosed with anxiety disorders and was published in the journal, International Clinical Psychopharmacology. The result showed that both 5 HTP and clomipramine were more effective than placebo but the antidepressant was more effective.

Although there are very few studies done on the use of 5 HTP in the treatment of anxiety disorders, most of them show that 5 HTP only show a modest efficacy in this regards.

Even though SSRIs and SNRIs are the first-line drugs in the management of anxiety disorders, their main mechanism of action is through GABA.

GABA is a neurotransmitter that is also involved in the serotonergic pathway. Therefore, when SSRIs and SNRIs bind to serotonin receptors, one of their effects is the release of other neurotransmitters like GABA.

As the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, GABA affects mood in quite the opposite way to serotonin. Serotonin improves mood and, therefore, it is the target of antidepressants but GABA has a calming effect on the central nervous system.

However, this does not mean that GABA and serotonin counteract each other. In fact, SSRIs are particularly effective for treating depression and anxiety especially since both conditions often go together.

5 HTP increases serotonin level because it is a direct precursor of the neurotransmitter. However, since low GABA level is the chief cause of anxiety and not low serotonin level, 5 HTP does not directly address anxiety.

This does not mean that 5 HTP is useless in the treatment of anxiety disorders. By increasing serotonin levels, 5 HTP may indirectly increase GABA levels through serotonin receptors. However, increased serotonin levels do not necessarily increase GABA levels.

In patients suffering from both depression and anxiety, 5 HTP may provide better benefits by relieving the overlapping symptoms of both medical conditions. In such cases, 50 mg of 5 HTP should be taken 1 -3 times daily.





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