Using Alcohol and 5 HTP
Alcohol is a stimulant which affects serotonin pathway in the brain. Since 5 HTP increases serotonin production, it can interact with alcohol. However, some people do take 5 HTP to help overcome alcoholism. Find out how alcohol and 5 HTP may interact in the body and what to do to avoid any serious side effect of this interaction.
by Brad Chase
5 HTP is an intermediate compound in the synthesis of serotonin in the body. It is a naturally occurring amino acid synthesized from another amino acid, L-tryptophan.
Unlike L-tryptophan, 5 HTP is not an essential amino acid and it has no dietary sources.
However, 5 HTP is the most popular dietary supplement used for increasing serotonin level in the body. The 5 HTP used in supplement is not synthesized in the laboratory but sourced from Griffonia simplicifolia, a plant native to Africa.
Most of the therapeutic and side effects of 5 HTP are due to serotonin since it is directly converted to the neurotransmitter in the central nervous system.
Therefore, 5 HTP is used as an antidepressant, appetite suppressant and sleep aid. It can also be used to treat fibromyalgia, obesity as well as insomnia and anxiety disorders.
Because it is a direct precursor of serotonin, care should be taken when combining 5 HTP with other drugs, supplements, herbs and stimulants known to work on serotonin pathway. Such combinations may lead to the worsening of side effects.
Alcohol refers to drinks made out of ethanol. It is usually produced from the bacterial fermentation of sugars.
In a way, alcohol can be considered a drug. It is a psychoactive agent which produces depressant effects in the central nervous system.
Alcohol acts on different systems in the brain, therefore, it produces a series of complex effects in the nervous system. More than another system, alcohol binds to GABA receptors and acts just like drugs like barbiturates and benzodiazepines which also work at those receptors.
However, alcohol also binds to acetylcholine and serotonin receptors in the brain. It is also known to block the breakdown of dopamine.
Short-term effects of alcohol following intoxication include nausea and vomiting. Chronic alcohol intake can cause liver damage in the long-term.
The body eliminates alcohol by converting it to acetaldehyde in the liver and then acetyl to produce energy for cellular metabolism. However, acetaldehyde is a toxic intermediate and it is responsible for most of the damage done by alcohol.
Although acetaldehyde causes serious side effects, it appears to be important to the dopamine system. In fact, its ability to activate this system is important for maintaining the alcohol addiction in heavy drinkers.
In small doses, alcohol causes euphoria and relaxation which is also expressed as talkativeness.
However, when the blood alcohol content reaches 0.1%, alcohol can impair cognition and sensory functions as well as central nervous system depression. Beyond that, alcohol can slow down blood flow to the brain and even cause unconsciousness. At 0.4% of blood volume, alcohol is potentially fatal.
When alcohol is combined with drugs such as antidepressants, opioids, barbiturates and benzodiazepines, it can increase their sedative effects due to central nervous system depression.
Both alcohol consumption and alcohol withdrawal can profoundly be affected by serotonergic activity in the brain.
Different studies have examined the relationship between alcohol consumption and serotonin transmission. It has been shown that alcohol consumption increases for people who have low serotonin levels or decreased serotonin activity.
Because alcohol reduces the level of serotonin, chronic alcohol intake or alcoholism may also cause other problems related to chronic low levels of serotonin. Therefore, alcoholism usually occurs with other medical problems such as sleep disorders, fatigue and depression.
In addition, high doses of alcohol also cause memory impairment by preventing the consolidation of memory.
All of these side effects of alcohol consumption are signs of low serotonin levels in the brain. Therefore, experts believe that increasing serotonin activity in the brain can improve the side effects of alcohol.
The major serotonin medications used for combating alcoholism include those that increase its synthesis and release, those that bind to serotonin receptors and increase serotonergic activities, and those that prevent the removal of serotonin from nerve endings.
The use of the later group of drugs has been extensively studied in the management of alcoholism. The results suggest that this class of drugs are effective in the short-term but do not outperform placebo after 1 – 2 months of administration.
In addition, some serotonin drugs can reduce the desire and preference for alcohol.
Heavy alcohol consumption can initially trigger increased serotonin secretion in the brain. This is responsible for the euphoria and buzz associated with drinking initially. However, as the blood alcohol content rises, it begins to act as a depressant in the central nervous system. This shift is mostly caused by the sharp fall in serotonin production and the increased activation of GABA systems.
The efficacy of drugs that increase serotonin production (5 HTP, for example) in the management of alcoholism has not been well studied. However, there are successful cases of patients who have benefited from 5 HTP supplementation in overcoming alcoholism.
Serotonin drugs have better chances of reversing the effects of alcohol when alcoholism is accompanied by medical conditions such as depression.
Long-term use of alcohol allows the body to develop tolerance and physical dependence to the psychoactive agent. Therefore, when alcohol consumption is reduced or stopped, alcohol withdrawal syndrome occurs.
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a serious medical condition which can lead to seizures and delirium. It is caused by rebound hyper-excitation of the central nervous system that is not met by the usual depressant effect of alcohol.
Mild signs of alcohol withdrawal syndrome include headache, migraines, irritability, restlessness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating and sleep disturbances. These symptoms can quickly develop into severe ones such as hallucination, psychosis, insomnia, depression, rapid heartbeat and catatonia.
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is treated by a number of medications including centrally active drugs such as antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, benzodiazepines, barbiturates and even low dose of alcohol.
Since most of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be alleviated by increasing serotonin levels in the central nervous system, dietary supplements such as 5 HTP can safely be used as adjunct therapy in the management of alcoholism.
By increasing serotonin levels in the brain, 5 HTP can improve mood, sleep and memory.
Even then, 5 HTP should not be used solely in the management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Most of the serious symptoms of this syndrome move too fast to be adequately addressed by 5 HTP.
Besides, not all the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome is due to changes in the serotonin pathway. The GABA system is even more involved in alcoholism and alcohol withdrawal.
The concurrent use of both 5 HTP and alcohol is recommended insofar as the user is trying to overcome his alcohol dependence or prevent alcohol withdrawal symptoms. This means that the user must only be taking low doses of alcohol and on his way to abstinence and not to reduce the symptoms of intoxication.
At least 6 hours should be allowed after taking 5 HTP before consuming alcohol.
Even then some drinkers report feeling very nauseous. This is actually one way that 5 HTP helps cultivate a dislike for alcohol and then promotes overcoming alcoholism.
There is no way to know how the combination of 5 HTP and alcohol may turn out especially since serotonin has a complex effect in the central nervous system.
Serotonin receptors contribute to the release of inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters including GABA and dopamine which are also affected by alcohol.
Since alcohol intake increases serotonin activity initially, combining 5 HTP and serotonin may cause symptoms of excessive serotonin activity at the start. This can be prevented by avoiding such combination.
However, alcohol reduces serotonin levels and activity almost immediately. Therefore, those taking 5 HTP for its health benefits should avoid taking alcohol since this will reduce the therapeutic benefits of 5 HTP supplementation.
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