New Evidence for the Benefits of 5-HTP

Alleviating Anxiety with
5-HTP is Good for Your Heart

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

- Macbeth, to his doctor

n that speech, Macbeth was referring to his charming wife, who, with the anguish caused by all that imaginary blood on her hands, was having more than her fair share of "troubles of the brain." Not among her troubles, however, was one that we all face, namely:

April 15 is coming! Are you prepared for the annual ritual of being separated from your hard-earned money by the awesome power of government? Are you sure you've accounted for every dime the taxman thinks he's entitled to? Would you be able to survive an audit if it came to that? Oh, Lord. . . .

If you're a typical citizen (we know that you're not, of course, because you're reading this magazine, but humor us for a moment), what you may be feeling right now is acute anxiety. Your heart may be pounding, your stomach churning, your muscles tensing, your palms sweating - and those are just some of the outward manifestations of cascading sequences of stress-induced biochemical reactions throughout your body as it responds to your worries and fears.

But fear not: there is a safe and effective natural supplement - a "sweet oblivious antidote" - that can help to calm your jangled nerves and, in so doing, counteract the pernicious effects of stress on your system. The supplement is an old favorite, 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP. To appreciate the value of 5-HTP in relieving stress, let us examine some of the effects of stress, which are manifestations of the mind/body connection.

Stress has a deservedly bad reputation because it can impair our health, and even kill us in the long run. It has been known for decades that it can ravage the cardiovascular system, and we know that it can also weaken the immune system's ability to fight off illness. This is particularly true of the elderly, and the authors of a new study on this subject believe that chronic stress might accelerate the immune-system decline that is already characteristic of the aging process.1 At a scientific conference recently, one of the researchers stated, "What we're learning is that there is a mind/body connection that we can understand and explain at the molecular and cellular level."

Yet another liability of stress may be an increased risk of cancer. In a study of 16 medical students in Texas, researchers found to their surprise that during the stress of a five-day exam period, 12 of the understandably anxious students showed an increase in activity of their DNA repair system.2 This can only mean that there was a short-term increase in actual DNA damage in their cells. But why? How? The researchers do not know. It is known, however, that stress increases the production of certain hormones that laboratory studies have shown can cause DNA damage, so that is a plausible explanation.

In any case, it seems clear that the students were showing a healthy response - as one would expect in young people - to these acute (short-term) episodes of DNA damage. But what if the stress that presumably caused the damage were not acute, but chronic (long-term)?* And what if the DNA repair system became inadequate to its task, thus allowing cancer cells to grow in the body? Scientists believe that if stress triggers DNA damage, and if the DNA repair system is faulty, a chronically stressful life might contribute to cancer in some people. It is also possible, of course, that chronic stress may have an indirect effect on health by altering (usually for the worse) the way people eat, exercise, and take care of themselves in general.

* Here it's worth noting that, as if the acute stress of exams weren't bad enough, medical students must routinely endure the chronic stress of 80--100-hour work weeks, not to mention learning how to handle life-and-death situations.

Although stress can be harmful in many ways, it is important to remember that not all stress is bad. A certain amount of  "good stress" is vital for keeping ourselves in top physical and mental form. Without the healthy stimulation of constructive challenges, both physical and mental, to our system, our bodies and minds slowly but surely turn to sludge.

Anxiety, however, is not a good kind of stress. Like some of its malign cousins, such as anger, hostility, type A behavior (excessively driven), feelings of hopelessness or despair, etc., it can gnaw at our vitals, which explains why it is associated with increased risks of heart disease and of fatal or nonfatal heart attacks. Different kinds of anxiety, such as phobic anxiety (irrational fear of something), panic disorder, generalized anxiety, or just garden-variety worry, have been found to be predictors of cardiac disease and death. This is especially true of those in whom anxiety is chronic.

That's the bad news. The good news is that chronic anxiety can often be overcome more easily than some other health- or life-threatening factors, such as obesity, lack of exercise, or smoking. One way is through making conscious efforts at getting better control of your life so as to allay the doubts and fears that plague you. For some people, at least, that can work. In any case, however, there is another way: 5-HTP.

The amino acid 5-HTP is a precursor (parent compound) of serotonin, one of the brain's most important neurotransmitter molecules. These are the chemical messengers that carry neural impulses across the gaps (called synapses) between adjacent nerve cells. Serotonin is believed to participate in such diverse functions as learning, sleep, and, significantly, mood control. By enhancing the body's production of serotonin, 5-HTP helps to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety disorders.3 Some of its other benefits are improved sleep, prevention of and relief from migraine headaches, and weight loss resulting from reduced carbohydrate cravings.

  Seed pods from the Griffonia simplicifolia, a West African medicinal plant from which 5-HTP is naturally derived. The bark is antiseptic, the leaf juice is used to treat kidney disease, and other components help inhibit vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. Griffonia is even regarded as an aphrodisiac.

Alleviating anxiety is a worthy goal for its own sake, of course, but also because of the benefits to the cardiovascular system. Who would not want to be unburdened of that "perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart"? How typically brilliant of Shakespeare to have used just the right words four centuries before we discovered how very right they were. For anxiety does weigh upon the heart - literally. As a recent study has shown, there is an association between anxiety and atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits, called plaque, in our arteries.4

The study, conducted in France during the 1990s, was designed to extend our knowledge of the relationship between chronic anxiety and heart disease, by seeking to determine whether or not the former causes a progression of atherosclerosis, a leading factor in the latter. The condition of primary interest was anxiety that manifested itself as a characteristic trait of the individual.

The researchers studied 726 men and women (aged 59 to 71) who had been evaluated for this condition using a standard psychological test. Of the 297 men, 10% had it, and of the 429 women, 11% had it. By the end of the four-year study, these 726 individuals were the ones left (out of a larger initial number) who had not shown any evidence of heart attack, angina, stroke, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Those who did have any of these conditions were dropped from the study because their condition would probably cause them anxiety, which would skew the results of the study.

The individuals in the study group were also evaluated for a number of variables that needed to be factored into the analysis so as to correct for their effects. These variables included age, body mass index (a measure of obesity), blood pressure, alcohol and tobacco use, medical history, and medications being taken. They were also given physical exams, including blood tests and precise measurements, using an ultrasound technique, of the wall thickness of their carotid arteries (the major arteries, one on each side of the neck, that supply the brain with blood) as well as the presence of atherosclerotic plaque in those arteries. Because the carotid arteries are close to the surface, they are relatively easy to scan with the ultrasound probe.

The results of the study showed that both men and women with chronic anxiety had a 2-fold greater increase in carotid-artery wall thickness than those without this condition. Furthermore, men with chronic anxiety had a 3.5-fold greater increase in plaque buildup than those without. Surprisingly, by contrast, women with chronic anxiety had only half the plaque buildup of women without. The reason for this striking difference is unknown, but it is reasonable to speculate that it has something to do with the influence of sex hormones on plaque formation. In any case, the researchers do not advise women to try to develop chronic anxiety so as to reduce their risk of atherosclerosis!

Because atherosclerosis in the carotid arteries is indicative of atherosclerosis generally - including, of course, the arteries of the heart - the association between chronic anxiety and carotid atherosclerosis is consistent with the known correlation between anxiety disorders and heart disease, in women as well as men. One could argue that this correlation is due to the anxiety caused by having heart disease, but that is not a likely explanation for the results of the French study, which took pains to rule this factor out, as explained above.

So there you have it: chronic anxiety tends to accelerate the progression of atherosclerosis, but 5-HTP can help alleviate anxiety. In any case, try to adopt the carefree attitude of Australians when they say, in response to just about any challenge, "No worries!"


  1. Glaser R, Curr Direct Psychol Sci 2001;10.
  2. Cohen L, Marshall GD, Cheng L, Agarwal SK, Wei Q. DNA repair capacity in healthy medical students during and after exam stress. J Behav Med 2000 Dec;23(6):531--44.
  3. Kahn RS, Westenberg HG, Verhoeven WM, Gispen-de Wied CC, Kamerbeek WD. Effect of a serotonin precursor and uptake inhibitor in anxiety disorders; a double-blind comparison of 5-hydroxytryptophan, clomipramine, and placebo. Int Clin Psychopharmacol 1987 Jan;2(1):33--45.
  4. Paterniti S, Zureik M, Ducimetière P, Touboul PJ, Fève JM, Alpérovitch A. Sustained anxiety and 4-year progression of carotid atherosclerosis. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol 2001;21:136--41.

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