Lose Weight with 5-HTP & EGCG
One reduces energy intake, the other increases energy
By Will Block
hen you start thinking about getting a wider bathroom
mirror, you know you’re in trouble—especially if the present one goes
wall-to-wall. And when the Post Office says it’s going to give you your own ZIP
code, that does it. You stamp your foot, call a contractor to repair the hole
you just made in the floor, and vow that you’re going to do something about all
that flab. You want to be slim, sure, but how are you going to accomplish that?
Well, duh—by losing weight, of course.
Americans have been losing a lot of weight lately.
Unfortunately, most of it has been from their wallets. Compared to the
weight-loss industry, there is probably no enterprise, with the possible
exception of government, that promises so much to so many, yet delivers so
little to so few—while raking in piles of money for consistently achieving
near-total failure. You’ve probably heard it all before: diets don’t work, any
weight loss won’t last, some diets are bogus, others are harmful, the
“guarantees” are worthless, the promoters are crooks, etc. (Now you’ve heard it
The sad thing is, much of that is true. And despite our
collective obsession with weight loss, we have become the earth’s fattest,
least-fit people—including our kids—and it’s getting worse all the time. That’s
great news for the weight-loss hucksters, whose skill at separating people from
their money must make politicians green with envy, because these people fork it
over willingly! (P. T. Barnum was right.)
Supplements Can Help with Weight Loss
Since the laws of physics have not been repealed lately, it
bears repeating that there are only two ways to lose weight: (1) reduce energy
intake (consume fewer calories), and (2) increase energy expenditure (burn more
calories). Simple, no? Simple, not—it’s very hard for most people to do. It’s
for the strong of heart and mind. It takes willpower and self-discipline,
without which your chances of losing weight are about the same as those of
Congress being seized by a sudden attack of ethical behavior.
Fortunately, though, the laws of chemistry haven’t been
repealed either, and there are ways in which your willpower and
self-disciplined efforts to take in fewer calories and burn off more calories
can be augmented by the reactions of certain nutritional supplements. Let’s
look at two of them: 5-HTP, which helps reduce energy intake, and EGCG (from
green tea), which helps increase energy expenditure.
5-HTP Suppresses Appetite
In the human body, the amino acid 5-HTP
(5-hydroxytryptophan) is the immediate precursor to one of the brain’s most
important neurotransmitters, serotonin. Serotonin helps to regulate mood,
sleep, and appetite, among other things. In cases of serotonin deficiency
(which can arise in different ways), there is a tendency to become depressed,
to sleep poorly, and to overeat. It is believed, e.g., that genetically induced
serotonin deficiency is a common factor in obesity, and there is no doubt that
this compound has a major influence on eating behavior.
It almost goes without saying that when you have a
deficiency of some substance, you should try to correct it by supplementing
with that very substance—or, in some cases, with a precursor substance, which
is sometimes more desirable. To correct serotonin deficiency, it’s preferable
to take not serotonin itself, but 5-HTP.* Your body converts much of it to
serotonin, which is found not only in the brain but also in relatively high
concentrations in blood platelets and in the intestinal wall. (Serotonin is a
powerful stimulant of smooth muscle and may play a role in promoting intestinal
peristalsis.) By boosting brain serotonin levels, 5-HTP helps create a feeling
of satiety (fullness), thus suppressing appetite. Hence, energy intake is
reduced (weight-loss key #1).
5-HTP Reduces Caloric Intake
Most of the clinical studies on the use of 5-HTP for weight
loss were done by a group of Italian researchers at the University of Rome in
the early 1990s. In one such study on 19 obese women (a 5-week, double-blind,
crossover trial in which each woman served as her own control), 79% of the
women reported a decrease in appetite while taking 5-HTP. This was borne out by
measurements of their actual caloric intake: it was found that supplementation
with 5-HTP reduced the women’s daily intake by 508 calories—a 22% reduction
compared with placebo. Over the 5-week period, the women lost an average of 3.1
lb with 5-HTP, vs. 0.9 lb with placebo. The amount of 5-HTP used daily (taken
in three divided servings) was 3.6 mg per pound of body weight; this
corresponds to a total of 450 mg per day for a 125-lb woman, or 900 mg per day
for a 250-lb woman.
5-HTP Produces Weight Loss, Diet or Not
In a second study, the Italian researchers put 14 obese
women on a 1200-calorie/day diet for 6 weeks. Some were given 300 mg of 5-HTP
30 minutes before meals (a total of 900 mg per day), while the others were
given placebo. Over the 6-week period, the women taking 5-HTP lost 6.8 lb, on
average, compared with 1.5 lb for the women on placebo.
In the same study, the researchers had previously tested the
same women during a 6-week period in which they were given the same daily 5-HTP
(or placebo) regimen, but without any dietary restrictions. Over that 6-week
period, the average weight loss was less (not surprisingly), but still
appreciable: 3.5 lb with 5-HTP and 1.1 lb with placebo. Thus, with or without
dietary restrictions, the women in this study lost substantial amounts of
weight (10.3 lb total) while taking 5-HTP—4 times as much as with placebo (2.6
5-Fold Greater Weight Loss with 5-HTP
In yet a third study, of essentially the same design as the
one just discussed, but with 20 obese women, the Italian researchers found that
300 mg of 5-HTP taken 30 minutes before meals resulted in a 6-week weight loss
of 7.3 lb with 5-HTP vs. 1.8 lb with placebo when the women were on the
restrictive 1200-calorie/day diet. Without the diet, the women had 6-week
weight losses of 3.7 lb and 0.6 lb, respectively. Thus, the total weight losses
over the 12-week period of this study were 11 lb with 5-HTP and 2.4 lb with
placebo—a nearly 5-fold difference. The 11-lb weight loss represented 5% of the
women’s starting weight of 220 lb.
“. . . oral administration of the
green tea extract
thermogenesis and fat oxidation
and thus has the potential to
influence body weight and
body composition . . . .”
In this third study, 5-HTP also produced dramatic results in
terms of the women’s feelings of early satiety, i.e., feeling full earlier than
usual during a meal. When the women were not on the restrictive diet, 100% of
those who were taking 5-HTP reported early satiety. Even when they were on the
diet, however (but taking 5-HTP), this feeling persisted: the figure then was a
remarkable 90%. Clearly, the feeling of early satiety led the women to eat less
than usual, resulting in the weight losses observed.
Slow Buildup Is Best with 5-HTP
In the studies discussed above, about two-thirds of the
women reported mild nausea while taking these very large doses (up to 900
mg/day) of 5-HTP; in the second and third studies, nausea occurred during the
first 6 weeks but not during the second 6 weeks. In real life, the easy way to
avoid nausea caused by 5-HTP is to start with a small amount and build it up
gradually over a period of 2 weeks; this is sufficient time to allow the body
to adjust, and thereafter the supplement is well tolerated.
EGCG Is Green Tea’s Crown Jewel
For a number of reasons, the compound EGCG (epigallocatechin
gallate) is shaping up to be one of the most valuable nutritional supplements
known to science. There is growing evidence of its potent protective effects
against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, microbial infections, and possibly
Parkinson’s disease. And all that from ordinary green tea!
EGCG belongs to the family of chemical compounds called
catechins, which are a subclass of the polyphenols, compounds well known for
their antioxidant properties. Of the various catechins in green tea, EGCG is by
far the most pharmacologically active and, by a stroke of luck, also the most
prevalent, accounting for at least half the total polyphenol content of green
EGCG Sparks Thermogenesis
Many of the remarkable health benefits attributed to EGCG
are believed to be due to its powerful antioxidant activity, but there is
clearly more to it than that. As if the benefits listed above weren’t enough,
EGCG is also an effective stimulator of thermogenesis, a process that is
central to weight loss.
Thermogenesis is the generation of heat by physiological
processes. In our bodies, it occurs in part through a series of chemical
reactions in which fat molecules are “burned” to form carbon dioxide and water.
These reactions liberate thermal energy (heat), which, along with the carbon
dioxide and water, is tangible evidence of the disappearance of those fat
molecules. Thermal energy is measured in units of calories. By stimulating
thermogenesis, EGCG contributes to your body’s caloric output. Hence, energy
expenditure is increased (weight-loss key #2).
EGCG and Caffeine Tested
Throughout the 1990s, university researchers in Switzerland
were investigating the thermogenic properties of green tea, whose star
ingredient, as we have seen, is EGCG. In one study a few years ago, they
recruited ten healthy young men, aged 24–26, who ranged from lean to mildly
obese (8–30% body fat) and who ate a typical Western diet in which fat
contributed 35–40% of their usual daily energy intake.
On a rotating, randomized, double-blind basis at intervals
of about one week, the men were given three supplement treatments for one day
each. Each treatment consisted of: (1) a powdered green tea extract (in an
amount roughly equivalent to four cups of the beverage per day), or (2) an
amount of caffeine (which is known to be thermogenic) equal to that found
naturally in the green tea extract, or (3) a placebo. The amount of green tea
extract used was 375 mg of polyphenols per day, of which 270 mg (72%) was EGCG.
During the entire 5–6-week duration of the study, the men
were restricted to a standard weight-maintenance diet in which the daily energy
intake consisted of about 13% protein, 40% fat, and 47% carbohydrate. For each
of the three one-day treatments, the men were confined for 24 hours to a
respiratory chamber (the size of a small room) designed to allow precise
measurement of their energy expenditure. They took the supplements in three
equal doses, with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
EGCG Burns the Fat
Compared with placebo, the green tea extract produced a
significant increase in total energy expenditure: about 4%. This corresponds to
a large increase in the thermogenic component of total energy expenditure:
about 35–43%. The authors concluded that “. . . oral administration of the
green tea extract stimulated thermogenesis and fat oxidation and thus has the
potential to influence body weight and body composition . . . .” Their
discovery—the first demonstration of this effect of green tea in a human
trial—built upon their own previous laboratory work that led to the same
In the new study, the caffeine alone produced no significant
increase in total energy expenditure compared with placebo, presumably because
the amount given (150 mg per day) was below its threshold for stimulating
thermogenesis. It may well be, however, that the green tea effect was due
partly to its caffeine content, through a synergistic interaction between the
caffeine and EGCG. (For more on caffeine’s synergism, see the sidebar,
“Caffeine and Ephedrine Work Well Together.”)
Caffeine and Ephedrine Work Well Together
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that also
acts as a circulatory, respiratory, and digestive-system stimulant. A
thermogenic agent in its own right, it also boosts the thermogenic properties
of other such agents. Among these are EGCG, from green tea, and ephedra, a
plant native to China (where it’s called ma huang) and India. Ephedra has been
used for weight loss and as a general tonic for thousands of years in the Far
East. The principal active compound in ephedra is ephedrine.
Caffeine and ephedrine (both are alkaloids) appear to
promote weight loss by working synergistically, both in central (brain-level)
suppression of appetite and in peripheral (body-wide) stimulation of thermogenesis.
A key benefit of their combined action is that it promotes the loss of fat but
not of lean muscle mass. The caffeine/ephedrine combination also increases
One study (actually, a reanalysis of a previous study) has
shown that 2.6 times as many patients lost 44 lb or more by taking caffeine and
ephedrine as by taking placebo: the success rates were 37% and 14%,
respectively. The caffeine/ephedrine combination also helped more patients
lose at least 22 lb than did placebo (89% vs. 63%), and no patient lost less
than 11 lb (0% vs. 11%).
- Toubro S, Astrup A, Breum L, Quaade F. Safety and
efficacy of long-term treatment with ephedrine, caffeine, and an
ephedrine/caffeine mixture. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1993;17:S69-72.
- Astrup A, et al. The effect of ephedrine/caffeine mixture
on energy expenditure and body composition in obese women. Metabolism
- Bell DG, Jacobs I, Zamecnik J. Effects of caffeine,
ephedrine and their combination on time to exhaustion during high-intensity
exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol 1998;77:427-33.
- Vedelspang A, Astrup A, Toubro S, Breum L. Clinical
effects of treatment with ephedrine/caffeine versus placebo: from mean weight
loss to proportion of successful patients. Int J Obes 1997 Jun;21(Suppl 2):S52
5-HTP and EGCG: Helping Hands
How fortunate we are that Mother Nature has provided two
such excellent, and complementary, supplements as 5-HTP and EGCG to aid us in
the eternal quest for weight loss. Are they “magic bullets,” guaranteed to do
the trick? No, you still have to muster the willpower and self-discipline we
spoke of earlier—those are the real magic bullets. The supplements, though, can
definitely give you two helping hands in shedding those extra pounds, if you
commit yourself to whatever your personal diet and exercise program may be, and
stick to it. If you do, pretty soon you’ll be admiring yourself again in that
- Wurtman RJ,
Wurtman JJ. Brain serotonin, carbohydrate-craving, obesity and depression. Adv
Exp Med Biol 1996;398:35-41.
- Ceci F,
Cangiano C, Cairella M, Cascino A, Del Ben M, Muscaritoli M, Sibilia L,
Rossi-Fanelli F. The effects of oral 5-hydroxytryptophan administration on
feeding behavior in obese adult female subjects. J Neural Transm 1989;76(2):109-17.
- Cangiano C,
Ceci F, Cairella M, Cascino A, Del Ben M, Laviano A, Muscaritoli M,
Rossi-Fanelli F. Effects of 5-hydroxytryptophan on eating behavior and
adherence to dietary prescriptions in obese adult subjects. Adv Exp Med Biol 1991;294:591-3.
- Cangiano C,
Ceci F, Cascino A, Del Ben M, Laviano A, Muscaritoli M, Antonucci F,
Rossi-Fanelli F. Eating behavior and adherence to dietary prescriptions in
obese adult subjects treated with 5-hydroxytryptophan. Am J Clin Nutr 1992 Nov;56(5):863-7.
- Murray MT.
5-HTP, The Natural Way to Overcome Depression, Obesity, and Insomnia. Bantam
Books, New York, 1998.
- Dulloo AG,
Duret C, Rohrer D, Girardier L, Mensi N, Fathi M, Chantre P, Vandermander J.
Efficacy of a green tea extract rich in catechin polyphenols and caffeine in
increasing 24-h energy expenditure and fat oxidation in humans. Am J Clin Nutr
- Dulloo AG, Seydoux J, Girardier L, Chantre P,
Vandermander J. Green tea and thermogenesis: interactions between
catechin-polyphenols, caffeine, and sympathetic activity. Int J Obes Relat
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Will Block is the publisher and editorial director of Life