If you’re not sleeping soundly, could taking a couple of simple supplements help to overhaul your energy and mood? Experts say yes – so here’s everything you need to know about 5-HTP and magnesium.
If three words could describe how most of us are feeling in 2022, it’d be ‘tired’ and ‘burnt out’. In fact, a McKinsey report released last year found that women are disproportionately experiencing burnout in the wake of the pandemic – and that’s leaving us feeling knackered and low. No wonder so many of our colleagues are calling in sick right now.
But what if we told you that some experts swear by using a commonly found supplement to boost their mood and sleep quality? In fact, Dale Pinnock AKA the Medicinal Chef, has been sharing his go-to sleep stack for a better quality snooze: magnesium and 5-HTP.
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5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, is a supplement that you can find in any wellbeing/health store. Tryptophan (the last bit of the name) is an essential amino acid, which means that although we need it, our bodies can’t make it – we can only get it from our diet.
Animal proteins tend to be rich in tryptophan but those of us who are plant-based may struggle to find it naturally. Once you do consume it, however, our bodies then turn the amino acid into 5-HTP and that compound then goes onto make 5-HT – which is serotonin.
He’s been sharing on Instagram how he takes around 400mg of magnesium and a 5-HTP capsule 40 minutes before bed. “Magnesium actually increases the production of GABA in the brain. GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter,” he says – explaining that some neurotransmitters can be excitatory (they ramp everything up) and others help you to wind down (like GABA). “These really help to bring the central nervous system down into a much more relaxed state.”
He goes on to say that when you take 5-HTP, it increases the amount of serotonin in the brain and when your eyes detect darkness, that serotonin converts into melatonin (“the thing that gets and keeps you asleep”).
Pinnock says that taking those supplements together, as a stack, is what can significantly improve your sleep.
What are the benefits of taking 5-HTP?
But there’s more to 5-HTP than simply being a stackable sleep supplement. It’s got plenty of other benefits, including:
Improved gut health
“5-HTP is the direct step that our body needs to create serotonin,” explains Alex Glover, senior nutritionist at Holland & Barrett. “That’s important because we associate serotonin with happiness and mood, but it’s also highly involved in our digestive system as well. It’s responsible for pushing food through our intestinal digestive tract.”
Often when we feel anxious, we feel it in our stomach. We also know that 95% of our serotonin is made in the gut, so if your digestion is sluggish, it makes sense that your mood’s probably going to be impacted.
Taking 5-HTP can “immediately” boost your serotonin level, according to Glover, and that may improve mood and relaxation.
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Glover says that it’s also associated with improving sleep quality. “Lots of people take it immediately before sleep because serotonin plays a role in our sleep cycle. It goes on to make melatonin.”
One study found that a combination of 5-HTP and GABA significantly reduced the time it took people to fall asleep, increased sleep duration and improved sleep quality. A review of the drug also found that supplementing 5-HTP could offer long-term help with sleep terrors. It also pointed out a study in which people taking it spent 53% more time in rapid eye movement sleep (REM) than the placebo group.
How long does it take to feel the effects of 5-HTP?
Now at this stage, it’s worth pointing out that Glover is talking about 5-HTP from a purely physiological/biological action point of view. It’s a fact that the compound aids the body in producing the happy hormone, as well as the sleep-inducing melatonin. Whether or not that results in you feeling incredibly happy or getting a super-deep sleep, however, is another matter.
Saying that, there are plenty of people who swear by its efficacy. Glover says that its effects are very much dependent on when you take it and how much. If you take a load of different amino acids together, your body may struggle to absorb them all.
“In some of the research on HTP, doses can range from 100-800mg – so there’s quite a big variation in the clinically studied dose,” he explains. “But if you look at the biology of HPT, the elevation of serotonin can happen quite immediately. I’m not saying that it does happen immediately and for some people, it might not happen at all, but the biological response is fairly immediate.”
Adding vitamins to it can make it more bioavailable to the body too. If you look at most 5-HTP supplements, they tend to be combined with vitamin B6, for example, because that’s the key amino acid that’s involved in turning 5-HTP into serotonin.
When should you take 5-HTP?
Glover recommends taking the supplement around 30 minutes before bedtime, washing it down with a glass of water and away from food. As an isolated amino acid, “it’s probably better to take it on its own as you don’t need a lot of stomach acid to break it down,” he says. He also recommends beginning with a low dose and then cranking it up as you get more used to it. You may not notice any difference in your sleep at all, but if Holland & Barret’s customer reviews are anything to go by, you could well start to experience some pretty wild dreams.
“That’s a marker of REM sleep, which is a really important sleep stage,” Glover says. “I tend to think of REM as our emotional first aid stage of sleep, when our memories are being consolidated and we do our emotional reasoning.” 5-HTP-induced REM sleep has also been linked to reduced symptoms of depression.
While 5-HTP obviously can’t cure you of poor mental health, we do know that REM sleep is very important from an emotional health point of view – and it looks like 5-HTP might help with that.
If you’re currently taking antidepressants, it’s import to consult your GP before giving 5-HTP a go.
For more supplement facts, visit the Strong Women Training Club.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.