Another Important Role for 5-HTP
Good Grief

There is nothing more shattering in life than the loss of a loved one. What was once taken for granted is one day . . . no more. It feels as though nothing could be more final, except perhaps one's own death. Grief is an emotional response of those who live for those who have died or who have departed in other ways - through divorce, for example. Severe grief is a tragedy of uncontrollable feelings of emptiness and sadness. Chronic grief can pillage our health by weakening our immune systems, stressing our bodily functions, and aging us too rapidly. These crippling emotional states can even lead us to our own premature demise.

Fortunately, there is a way to avoid much of the mayhem that grief can inflict on our health. It is to replenish our supply of serotonin, the fundamental brain messenger molecule (neurotransmitter) that tends to balance excitatory neurological signals. When serotonin is abundant, it exercises a kind of internal braking whereby we can recapture control of the runaway vehicle of our anguish, which can easily lead to depression. Studies have shown that among the most efficient ways to increase serotonin levels is via supplementation with its direct precursor, 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP).1

When someone we have loved has left us, it is appropriate that we give homage and recognition to that person, and this means paying respect to the values we shared with the departed. Grieving serves useful purposes. It helps us to heal and to restore our inner balance. It does this, in part, by allowing the process of catharsis to resolve and release our sorrow and to purge debilitating emotions. Catharsis can be thought of as a mind and soul scrub.

The problem arises when grief becomes overwhelming and crosses the border into depression. If that happens, life can become meaningless and tortured. Ultimately, our health is damaged. Even though we readily recognize that our departed loved ones would never want us to hurt ourselves, if grief persists it can inflict serious harm. The term traumatic grief has recently been proposed to describe what happens when a person goes over the edge in response to the loss of a loved one. Traumatic grief has roots in attachment behavior (being unable to function adequately apart from another person), separation distress (e.g., yearning, searching, loneliness), and traumatic distress (numbness, disbelief, distrust, anger, sense of futility about the future). Suffice it to say that traumatic grief is very unhealthy. It does not promote health or well-being, let alone life extension.

In a recent study that examined the connection between grief and quality of life, the effects on health were quite apparent. Just four months after their losses, 67 widowed individuals (men and women) diagnosed with traumatic grief were found to have lower social functioning scores, mental health scores, and energy levels than other widowed individuals with a more normal level of grief.2 Traumatic grief was found to predict lower scores in social, health, and energy levels than major depressive episode or post-traumatic stress disorder. It is significantly associated with quality-of-life impairments.

The constant theme of many of the more than 2500 published books on the subject of grief is acceptance of the pain and other debilitating feelings. A typical title is Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief (a bestseller). But the findings of science do not support that living with long-term grief can be good. Studies have shown that people who can live (healthily) with unresolved grief are rare.3,4 In the elderly, the crisis of losing a mate has severe implications, and the risk of imminent death for the surviving spouse increases dramatically. In one large-cohort study, the risk of death doubled for both men and women between months 7 and 12 after the death of a spouse.5

The old adage "till death do us part" is no longer what it was when the idea first became affixed to the institution of marriage. Not so long ago, when most marriages were arranged for social or economic purposes rather than love, by the time a man reached his mid-20s, he might have buried as many as three wives who had died in childbirth. With longer lifetimes and less death in childbirth, "till death do us part" has taken on a very different meaning.

Ours is the first country in the history of the world where choice and love have become inextricably related in marriage. In the United States it is the norm for two people to choose each other, fall in love, and get married. However, when one or both members of the couple are no longer happy, separation and divorce are the likely outcome.

But make no mistake: for one or both of them, this parting is probably not sweet sorrow. In fact, divorce often results in all of the same emotional upheavals - the stages of denial, anger, sorrow, depression, and acceptance that are thought by many to be natural parts of the grieving process - that are caused by the death of a loved one.

While death is often believed to be the ultimate avenger, separation and divorce can strike even more powerfully, because along with sorrow comes something called guilt. Although feelings of guilt may accompany the grief over a death, they are much more likely to manifest on the threshold of divorce.

In a recent study that examined the
connection between grief and quality
of life, the effects on health
were quite apparent.

When the recently divorced end up blaming themselves, they add self-insult to injury. Furthermore, although grieving for the dead can also involve a spectrum of emotional knots, grief for a past relationship and the love that was born of it is more likely to lead to remorse. However important these realizations are, stepping too deep into this stream of negative emotions can be dangerous to our health.

Studies have shown that 5-HTP can help alleviate two of the principal consequences of divorce: sleeplessness6 and depression7 (which are related). Technically, the sleeplessness of divorce is associated with the shortening of the first stage of sleep.

Scientists have found that there are several well-defined stages of sleep. Once we doze off, we experience 90-minute cycles of non-REM (non-rapid-eye-movement) and REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep. Non-REM (which includes the deep delta sleep that provides for daily physical and mental rest and renewal) dominates the first part of a night's sleep, while REM, or dreaming, sleep commands the second half. The amount of delta sleep tends to decrease with age. Children experience the most delta sleep, and older people experience little or none. REM sleep is now thought to have had its origin in reptile species.8

Using EEG (electroencephalogram) equipment, which measures brain waves, researchers have shown that most dreaming occurs during REM sleep, when our eyes flutter inside their lids. It's almost as if we scan the dreams we're experiencing. While the role of dreams is still not understood, when the REM sleep in which dreams occur is altered with certain sleeping pills, sleep is not as satisfying or rejuvenating.

According to recent research, when the initial period of non-REM sleep (stage-I sleep) is shortened or disrupted, memory is not easily retained, and the emotional hangovers of the day persist. Not getting enough of non-REM sleep can contribute to or prolong depression.

In one study, 70 individuals undergoing marital separation were selected for a three-night sleep evaluation; 40 were diagnosed with depression, and 30 were not.9 Sixty-one returned for repeat studies one year later, at which time divorce was final for 42. Initially, all those undergoing marital separation had less stage-I sleep than an age-matched married comparison sample. This stage of sleep clearly lengthened at followup for those whose divorce was completed. Yet stage-I sleep was still reduced in those who remained depressed. There is a clear suggestion that prolonged emotional stress may put these subjects at some risk for a mood disorder, i.e., depression.

Another study has demonstrated that psychological distress, including depression and grief, is stress-related. In a study with HIV-positive homosexual men suffering bereavement from the loss of a loved one, the researchers examined plasma levels of pyridoxine (vitamin B6).10 Deficiency of this vitamin was found to predict overall psychological distress as well as specific mood states. It was significantly associated with increased levels of depression, fatigue, and moods that the subject felt unable to explain.

With a 5-HTP supplement, the ordeal
of grief is likely to be eased - the pain
lessened, the feelings of anxiety and
depression quelled.

Some depression following a significant loss is normal and even healthy. It can be a healing part of the grieving process. This is true whether the depression is caused by the death of a loved one, a divorce, the loss of a job, or a permanent disability brought about by accident or disease. One can think of grief as an emotion that helps to purge and heal. As such, it should be respected. Grief can be good and can provide one of life's great lessons, but only if it is used as the opportunity to reflect upon one's values, to learn to know oneself better, to accept responsibility, and to choose more wisely. This is true despite the pain, suffering, and other difficulties.

With a 5-HTP supplement, the ordeal is likely to be eased - the pain lessened, the feelings of anxiety and depression quelled - but one does not lose knowledge of the feeling, nor is one as likely to be immobilized. The lessons of divorce are not masked, as with serotonergic drugs that inhibit normal memory functions, precluding one from making the most of the experience and from acting responsibly.

5-HTP and pyridoxine are the precursor and cofactor, respectively, for serotonin production. Hyperforin, too, may help take the edge off of grief without taking the bite out of life. For getting the good out of grief and staying healthy, 5-HTP can't be praised enough, especially when used to meet life's great challenges.


  1. MohanKumar PS, MohanKumar SM, Quadri SK, Voogt JL. Responsiveness of tuberoinfundibular dopaminergic neurons to 5-hydroxytryptophan: effects of aging. Endocrine 1998 Aug;9(1):33-7.
  2. Silverman GK, Jacobs SC, Kasl SV, Shear MK, Maciejewski PK, Noaghiul FS, Prigerson HG. Quality of life impairments associated with diagnostic criteria for traumatic grief. Psychol Med. 2000 Jul;30(4):857-62.
  3. Woof WR, Carter YH. The grieving adult and the general practitioner: a literature review in two parts (Part 1). Br J Gen Prac 1997 Jul;47(420):443-8.
  4. Woof WR, Carter YH. The grieving adult and the general practitioner: a literature review in two parts (Part 2). Br J Gen Prac 1997 Aug;47(421):509-14.
  5. Schaefer C, Quesenberry CP Jr, Wi S. Mortality following conjugal bereavement and the effects of a shared environment. Am J Epidemiol 1995 Jun 15;141(12):1142-52.
  6. Ursin R. The effect of 5-hydroxytryptophan and l-tryptophan on wakefulness and sleep patterns in the cat. Brain Res 1976;106:106-15.
  7. Poldinger W, Calanchini B, Schwarz W. A functional-dimensional approach to depression: serotonin deficiency as a target syndrome in a comparison of 5-hydroxytryptophan and fluvoxamine. Psychopathology 1991;24:53-81.
  8. Siegel JM, Manger PR, Nienhuis R, Fahringer HM, Pettigrew JD. Monotremes and the evolution of rapid eye movement sleep. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 1998 Jul 29;353(1372):1147-57.
  9. Cartwright RD, Kravitz HM, Eastman CI, Wood E. REM latency and the recovery from depression: getting over divorce. Am J Psychiatry 1991 Nov;148(11):1530-5.
  10. Baldewicz T, Goodkin K, Feaster DJ, Blaney NT, Kumar M, Kumar A, Shor-Posner G, Baum M. Plasma pyridoxine deficiency is related to increased psychological distress in recently bereaved homosexual men. Psychosom Med 1998 May-Jun;60(3):297-308.

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