5-HTP is naturally part of the serotonin producing process in your body. It's made from L-Tryptophan which you normally get from food.
The 5-HTP supplements you can buy are made from the seeds of an African plant, Griffonia simplicifolia, which is high in 5-HTP. This 5-HTP is exactly the same as the 5-HTP your body makes, so it's very safe and natural, as long as the commercial production process is carried out to proper safety standards.
Like serotonin itself, 5-HTP is made in specialised intestinal cells as well as in your brain. But unlike serotonin, 5-HTP in your blood can pass easily into the brain, so we don't have to rely on the brain production process alone.
5-HTP just needs one more step to be converted into serotonin. If you increase your 5-HTP levels, this will fairly automatically lead to a boost in serotonin, so you feel better, sleep better, and lose your carbohydrate cravings.
How natural are 5-HTP supplements?
The 5-HTP supplements on the market today are made from Griffonia simplicifolia, an African tree whose seeds are naturally high in 5-HTP. I don't know about you, but I'd rather take a supplement that is extracted rather than manufactured synthetically!
5-HTP supplements first appeared on the U.S. market in 1994, a few years after the FDA banned the sale of over the counter tryptophan supplements after a major health scare.
In the 1980s L-Tryptophan was a widely used supplement, mostly used to treat insomnia and depression and other conditions related to low brain serotonin. L-Tryptophan is an essential amino acid - we need it, our bodies can't make it, and we have to get it from our food or some other source. It can be tricky to get enough from the food you eat, so taking a supplement made sense.
Apparently, L-Tryptophan supplements are produced by a bacterial fermentation process, and then purified via several steps. (See this article for more detail if you are interested.)
But in 1989 there was a huge outbreak of a new, potentially fatal disease, eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), which was linked to use of L-Tryptophan supplements. The cases of EMS were later all traced to a batch from a single Japanese manufacturer which used genetically modified bacteria in its manufacturing process, and at that time was found to have high levels of a contaminant. For several years, L-Tryptophan was only available on prescription in most countries, from highly regulated sources. However in 2001 the FDA reversed its ban and L-Tryptophan supplements became available again, though the FDA still suggests caution.
5-HTP is made by a completely different process, extracted from the seeds of the Griffonia simplicifolia tree. This is a safe, natural alternative to L-Tryptophan, and in many ways is an even more effective serotonin supplement.
Like L-Tryptophan, 5-HTP can be extremely helpful in treating depression and insomnia, some types of anxiety, weight loss, and other conditions which are related to low brain serotonin.
5-HTP side-effects seem to be only very minor - the most common is some initial mild nausea, which you can generally avoid by starting on a low dose or a time release supplement. There have never been any serious side-effects associated with 5-HTP use, such as occurred with the L-Tryptophan scare in 1989, and because it's made by a completely different process, there won't be any risk of a similar problem with contamination as long as you opt for a properly certified source of 5-HTP.