5-HTP May Reduce Your Risk for Disease

5-Hydroxytryptophan, for a Rosier Outlook on Life

5-HTP May Reduce Your Risk for Disease
Lifting the cloud of depression can reduce the risk for
diabetes and heart disease, and relieve arthritis pain
By Will Block

It’s a typical case of depression. I’m giving you
a prescription for some rose-colored glasses.

— Psychiatrist to Ziggy, in the comics

ow do you see the world—through rose-colored glasses, or through a glass darkly? The rose-colored glasses, for all their implications of naiveté and foolish optimism, are surely preferable, because they promote happiness—and happiness is a key factor in maintaining (or regaining) good health. If that sounds like a mind-over-matter thesis, you’re right, and it’s a compelling one. Doctors—and, for that matter, poets and other keen observers of the human condition—have long known that happier people are healthier people. Conversely, people who are prone to depression are more likely to suffer from diseases, including chronic ones such as diabetes and heart disease.

So if the black cloud of depression does sometimes envelop you, you need to snap out of it—for the sake of your physical health as well as your mental health. Like quitting smoking, however, that’s much easier said than done. The biochemistry of the mind is complex and difficult to control, especially when it veers too far from the norm. Actually, the phrase “biochemistry of the mind” is a bit misleading, because the mind is not a material entity in which biochemistry occurs. The mind is biochemistry—that of the brain.

The Power of Matter Over Mind

But can the mind literally change itself, i.e., can a certain biochemical state of being (manifested as depression) “decide” to change itself into a different such state (manifested as happiness, or at least contentment)? Miraculously, yes—although it’s not easy.* Some people can will themselves into a better frame of mind by forcing themselves to think happy thoughts, or by deliberately engaging in pleasant or stimulating activities until the effects of doing that take hold. Other people exercise their way to the same goal. Muscular exertion brings improved blood circulation to the brain and causes beneficial biochemical changes there, including the release of “feel-good” endorphins.

*Just about every aspect of the mind seems miraculous, when you think about it—which you are able to do, of course, only with your mind, which . . . uh . . . this gets tricky . . .

A good example of the power of matter over mind is seen in psychoactive drugs, including antidepressants, which can be very effective. But these prescription drugs are expensive and carry a baggage of unpleasant side effects, such as nausea, altered taste, excessive sweating, insomnia, and headaches. How much more “user-friendly” it is to exploit the power of natural nutritional supplements for helping bring peace to troubled minds. (Chocolate, of course, is renowned for its ability to induce a kind of biochemical bliss through its phenylethylamine content, but who in their right mind would think of chocolate as a supplement? Chocolate is an essential food! Right?)

5-HTP Is Matter that Can Help the Mind

So if you’re subject to depression, don’t want to take drugs, and find it difficult to fight your way out without them, rejoice, because there are supplements that can help. One such is 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), a natural brain amino acid that is the direct precursor to serotonin. Why is that relevant? Because serotonin is the neurotransmitter most directly involved in mental processes (biochemistry, remember?) that are manifested as mood, appetite, libido, and sleep. A deficiency of serotonin can disrupt the patterns of neural activity that govern these conditions and that usually keep them within normal, healthy limits.

The concept of mood covers a wide range of feelings, such as happiness or sadness, calmness or agitation, timidity or aggression, and complacency or anxiety. And, of course, it includes depression, which is characterized by feelings of apathy, hopelessness, guilt, and despair, as well as disorders of eating, sleep, and sexual function. Depression compromises the immune system, making us more susceptible to acute diseases, and it increases our risk for chronic diseases. Finally, it results in significant functional disability (difficulty in performing activities of daily living and routine social activities), which is exacerbated by the presence of chronic disease.1

5-HTP Helps Relieve Anxiety and Depression

The two main causes of low serotonin levels are aging and stress. Stress-related problems are so pervasive that, in his book 5-HTP, The Natural Way to Overcome Depression, Obesity, and Insomnia, Dr. Michael T. Murray writes that he considers “serotonin-deficiency syndrome to be one of the most widespread and debilitating medical problems of our time.”2 This seems plausible in light of the prevalence of clinical depression in American society: it is estimated that about 16% of the older adult population suffers from some depressive disorder in any given year.3 (Depression is age-related not just because of declining serotonin levels, but because many older people have more things to be depressed about: declining health and vigor, death of friends and loved ones, etc.)

Reduced levels of serotonin can lead to depressed, anxious, irritable, impulsive, or abusive behavior, and they can cause insomnia and lead to headache pain. Boosting serotonin levels by supplementing with 5-HTP is an effective way to treat—or, better yet, prevent—such problems.4 5-HTP helps alleviate anxiety disorders, e.g., which are associated with an increased risk for heart disease and for fatal or nonfatal heart attacks, especially in chronic cases.5 It has also been found to improve sleep, help prevent and relieve headaches, and promote weight loss as a result of reduced carbohydrate cravings.4

Arthritis Pain Yields to a Sunny Outlook

Arthritis (mainly osteoarthritis) is a leading cause of functional disability in older adults. It’s hard to prevent, it’s painful, and it can’t be cured, only treated. About one-third of individuals older than 65 have symptomatic osteoarthritis of the knees, and almost 80% of those over 70 have some form of degenerative joint disease. The combined medical and economic costs associated with arthritis are staggering.

How depressing. But wait—it gets worse! If you have arthritis and are depressed, chances are your pain and disability will be even greater than if your outlook on life is sunny. Somehow, that doesn’t seem surprising. But does it mean that if your depression is successfully treated, your arthritis pain and disability will diminish? That question was addressed by a large team of researchers at eight institutions throughout the United States—and the answer is yes.1

For 1 year, the researchers studied 1801 depressed adults, aged 60 or older, 56% of whom had coexisting arthritis (mostly osteoarthritis). Randomly dividing the group in two, they gave the “intervention group” personalized, intensely focused depression-care management, including the use of antidepressant drugs, psychotherapy, or both; by contrast, the “usual treatment group” received only routinely available treatments, i.e., prescriptions for antidepressant drugs and referrals to mental health services.

The results were gratifying and somewhat unexpected: compared with the usual treatment group, patients in the intervention group reported significant reductions in arthritis pain, as well as improvements in functional ability. In addition, their overall health and quality of life were significantly improved vs. those of the usual treatment group. All in all, it’s yet another compelling example of the benefits of fighting depression.

  1. Lin EHB, Katon W, Von Korff M, Tang L, Williams JW Jr, Kroenke K, et al., for the IMPACT Investigators. Effect of improving depression care on pain and functional outcomes among older adults with arthritis: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2003;290(18):2428-34.

Of particular interest here is that much scientific literature exists supporting the beneficial effects of 5-HTP (and its precursor, the amino acid tryptophan) in helping to reduce the symptoms of depression in mild to moderate cases.6 As suggested above, this can have profound implications for our general health, because to avoid or alleviate depression is to reduce the risk of some serious, life-threatening diseases.* (We all know, of course, that having a serious disease can itself cause depression—no surprise there.)

*For more on 5-HTP’s ability to help with anxiety and depression, see “Alleviating Anxiety with 5-HTP Is Good for Your Heart” (April 2001) and “5-HTP Can Lift Your Spirits” (March 2002).

Depression and Diabetes—An Unholy Alliance

A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins Medical School and several other universities addressed the question of whether depression was a significant risk factor for type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes.7 This debilitating disease is epidemic in scope, especially in the United States, where obesity is rampant and physical inactivity is a way of life (a way of death, actually). Analyzing the health data of 11,615 initially nondiabetic adults (aged 45–64, average 57) from communities in four states, they found that after 6 years, 721 of the subjects had developed diabetes.

Depression was associated with a
50% increase in the risk for death
from CVD and a 32% increase in
the risk for death from all causes.

The researchers divided the 11,615 individuals into quartiles (fourths) based on their scores in a standardized test of depressive symptoms, called the Vital Exhaustion Questionnaire. Depression turned out to be positively associated with body mass index, fasting insulin levels, systolic blood pressure, caloric intake, physical inactivity, and current smoking; in other words, increases in any of these six factors were correlated with higher levels of depressive symptoms.

The Deeper the Depression, the Greater the Risk for Diabetes

After adjusting the data for age, race, sex, and educational level, the researchers found that individuals in the highest quartile of depressive symptoms (i.e., the most severely depressed individuals) had a 63% greater risk for developing diabetes than those in the lowest quartile (the least depressed individuals). That suggests that there is a causal link between depression and diabetes (confirming the same conclusion reached in other studies), but it must be noted that the overall risk for diabetes was only slightly increased by depressive symptoms, and only among individuals in the highest quartile.

The mind is biochemistry—the biochemistry of the brain.

In the authors’ words, “Although the association between depressive symptoms and type 2 diabetes was modest, these results provide some additional support for the hypothesis that negative affective states, such as depression, can have negative metabolic consequences.” They speculated on four possible mechanisms that might connect depression and the risk for diabetes:

  1. Depressed individuals are more likely to gain weight, to slack off on exercise, and to be lax in taking their medications. They are thus more likely to become obese and to develop insulin resistance—a great setup for diabetes. They are also more likely to smoke, which is another risk factor for diabetes.
  2. Obesity and factors such as low socioeconomic status could lead to both depression and diabetes, thus confusing the issue somewhat.
  3. Some of the medications used to treat depression are associated with weight gain and obesity—the number one risk factor for diabetes.
  4. Depression induces neurohormonal changes that result in increased levels of cortisol and catecholamines. This condition is associated with abdominal adiposity (belly fat) and increased levels of triglycerides (fats) and insulin—all of which are predictors of diabetes.

The Link Between Heart Disease and Depression Is Strong

Also confirming a conclusion reached in previous studies, researchers from universities across the United States collaborated in a study indicating that depression is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and for death by heart attack.8 Like the diabetes study discussed above, this one involved a large number of individuals (93,676), but in this case they were all postmenopausal women (aged 50–79), 16% of whom reported being depressed at the outset of the 4-year study, and 12% of whom had a history of depression. It’s important to note that women diagnosed with mental illness—which includes clinical (i.e., serious) depression—were excluded from this study, meaning that all cases of depression in this group were subclinical (i.e., relatively mild).

In this group of women, being overweight and being a smoker (conditions that increase the risk for heart disease) were significantly related to depression: women with both of these conditions had a 56% greater chance of being depressed than those who had neither. On the other hand, there was a strong inverse relationship between exercise (which protects against heart disease) and depression: women who exercised at a moderate to strenuous level for at least 20 minutes at least 4 times a week had a 44% lower risk for depression, and those who got only “some” exercise had a 22% reduction in risk.

Self-reported fair or poor health, as contrasted with excellent or very good health, was associated with a 4.8-fold increase in the risk for depression, and the presence of three specific cardiovascular risk factors—high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels requiring medication, and diabetes—was associated with 12%, 17%, and 50% increases in risk, respectively. Any history of CVD was strongly associated with an increased risk for depression—anywhere from 19% to 84%, with angina, stroke, and peripheral arterial disease all coming in at about 60%.

Depression Can Be a Killer—Literally

Perceptive reader that you are, you must be wondering by now what these relationships have to do with the subject at hand, namely, the opposite question: does depression affect the risk for CVD? It’s not easy to arrive at the answer, because the data can be viewed from either direction and are fraught with subtleties and confounding factors. Because it’s too complicated to describe here, let’s cut to the chase and see what the researchers concluded.

For women with no history of CVD, depression was independently associated with a 50% increase in the risk for death from CVD, after adjusting the data to correct for the effects of (take a deep breath) age, race, educational level, income level, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol levels requiring medication, body mass index, physical activity, hormone use, and use of antidepressant drugs. Depression was also independently associated with a 32% increase in the risk for death from all causes.

For women who did have a history of CVD, depression was independently and significantly associated, initially, with increased risks for stroke, congestive heart failure, death from CVD, and death from all causes. When all the factors listed above were corrected for, however, the association remained significant only for stroke (a 45% increase in risk)—illustrating how important it is to analyze complex data thoroughly, with advanced statistical techniques.*

*It’s worth noting, by the way, that the data showed no association between depression and the risk for cancer, either for women with a history of CVD or for those without. A Finnish study, however, has found an increased risk for lung cancer associated with depression.9

End your blue period.
In an interview with Reuters Health, the lead author of the study said,10
Coupled with evidence from other studies examining the role of subclinical (mild) depression as an increased risk factor for disease and death, our findings raise the possibility that treating depression may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Something to Smile About

It seems clear that dispelling the gloom and doom of depression is good not only for the mind but also for the body. All else being equal, you will probably be healthier, as well as happier, if you can avoid depression and maintain a reasonably sunny disposition, as though you really were looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. And a healthier you probably means a longer-lived you, which is something to smile about. Also worth a big smile is 5-HTP, a supplement that can help drive the demons of depression from your brain and make you feel better.


  1. Egede LE. Diabetes, major depression, and functional disability among U.S. adults. Diabetes Care 2004;27(2):421-8.
  2. Murray MT. 5-HTP, The Natural Way to Overcome Depression, Obesity, and Insomnia. Bantam Books, New York, 1998.
  3. Oxman TE, Barrett JE, Barrett J, Gerber P. Symptomatology of late-life minor depression among primary care patients. Psychosomatics 1990;31:174-80.
  4. Birdsall TC. 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically effective serotonin precursor. Alt Med Rev 1998;3:271-80.
  5. 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;2(1):33-45.
  6. Shaw K, Turner J, Del Mar C. Tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan for depression (Cochrane Review). In: The Cochrane Library, Issue 4, 2001. Oxford: Update Software.
  7. Golden SH, Williams JE, Ford DE, Yeh, H-C, Sanford CP, Nieto FJ, Brancati, FL. Depressive symptoms and the risk of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 2004;27(2):429-35.
  8. Wassertheil-Smoller S, Shumaker S, Ockene J, Talavera GA, Greenland P, Cochrane B, Robbins J, Aragaki A, Dunbar-Jacob J. Depression and cardiovascular sequelae in postmenopausal women: the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). Arch Int Med 2004;164:289-98.
  9. Knekt P, Raitasalo R, Heliovaara M, et al. Elevated lung cancer risk among persons with depressed mood. Am J Epidemiol 1996;144:1096-103.
  10. Anon. Study links depression, heart disease. Reuters Health report, Chicago, Feb. 10, 2004.

Will Block is the publisher and editorial director of Life Enhancement magazine.

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