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The Dangers of Mixing Alcohol and 5-HTP

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5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is an amino acid occurring naturally in the body. It is commonly sold over the counter as a dietary supplement to reduce depression, suppress appetite, and help with relaxation and sleep. Alcohol and 5-HTP may adversely interact and lead to dangerous complications such as serotonin syndrome and liver damage.

If you’ve struggled to control alcohol use and failed to cut back on drinking despite multiple attempts, you are encouraged to seek professional help. Guardian Recovery Centers offers personalized treatment plans and various levels of care that range from high to low intensity as clients progress in their recovery. Our programs include effective evidence-based therapies and services based on a holistic approach to treatment that promotes mental, physical, and spiritual health and wellness.

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How Does Alcohol Work?

Alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) is the most widely used intoxicating substance worldwide. Alcohol affects several neurochemicals that send signals throughout the brain and body. (1) Among these include dopamine, glutamate, serotonin, and GABA. Alcohol is a depressant, and as such, it reduces activity in the nervous system.

When alcohol is initially consumed, it can induce stimulating effects due to increased dopamine, which is responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. However, the action of GABA, glutamate, and serotonin eventually take over. Alcohol increases GABA, which slows down CNS activity. Simultaneously, alcohol decreases glutamate, which usually counteracts GABA, leading to further depressant effects. Finally, alcohol increases serotonin, which plays a key role in mood, sleep, appetite, body temperature, and muscle function.

Depressant Effects of Alcohol Include:

  • Impaired thinking, judgment, and decision-making.
  • Reduced concentration, attention, and alertness.
  • Decreased inhibitions and increased impulsivity.
  • Reduced ability to form memories.
  • Impaired motor function and reflexes.
  • Poor vision and visual focusing.
  • Increased drowsiness.
  • Reduced heart rate.
  • Slowed breathing rate.

What Is 5-HTP?

5-HTP is a chemical the body makes out of tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in food. In the body, tryptophan is metabolized and turned into 5-HTP, which is then converted into serotonin. The body further converts serotonin into melatonin, a hormone that can play a role in sleep because it helps to time circadian rhythms.

5-HTP supplements are available over the counter at most supermarkets, vitamin shops, and health food stores. 5-HTP is primarily used as a serotonin booster to improve mood and reduce depressive symptoms, although it may also help treat anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. One meta-analysis of multiple 5-HTP studies reported that it could have “large positive effects” in the treatment of depression. (2)

Depression is commonly managed with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). (3) SSRIs work by inhibiting serotonin reuptake, allowing more to be available for use by the CNS. In contrast, 5-HTP supplements increase total serotonin concentrations in the CNS. 5-HTP is usually taken in doses between 150-800 mg. Depending on the dosage and other medications a person takes, side effects can range from mild to severe.

Common Side Effects of 5-HTP Include: (4)

  • Drowsiness
  • Stomachaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Appetite loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Heartburn
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Muscle problems

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What Are the Dangers of Mixing Alcohol & 5-HTP?

Mixing alcohol and 5-HTP is not recommended and comes with similar potential risks as combining alcohol and other antidepressants. Drinking while taking 5-HTP can cause or worsen the side effects of both. Moreover, the sleep-inducing effects of 5-HTP can compound the depressant effects of alcohol, leading to profound intoxication. Even when only a moderate amount of alcohol is consumed, individuals taking 5-HTP may experience memory blackouts and extreme drowsiness.

Alcohol can also counteract 5-HTP. In particular, combining alcohol with 5-HTP can significantly worsen the depressive symptoms that 5-HTP is being used to treat. A person with depression who takes 5-HTP with alcohol may experience severe mood swings, feelings of hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts.

Serotonin Syndrome

As mentioned, both alcohol and 5-HTP boost serotonin in the brain. However, as with SSRIs, combining alcohol with 5-HTP can increase serotonin to unsafe levels. When this occurs, a person is at risk of developing a potentially life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome. (5) This condition is an emergency that requires immediate medical intervention.

Common Symptoms of Serotonin Syndrome Include:

  • Agitation.
  • Restlessness.
  • Mild confusion and disorientation.
  • Elevated blood pressure.
  • Insomnia.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Headaches.
  • Muscle twitches.
  • Reduced muscle coordination.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Shivering and goosebumps.
  • Diarrhea.

Potentially Dangerous Serotonin Syndrome Symptoms Include:

  • Elevated internal body temperature (hyperthermia).
  • Profound confusion.
  • Muscle tremors.
  • Muscle rigidity.
  • Seizures.
  • Irregular heartbeat.
  • Unconsciousness.

Liver Damage

Alcohol is notoriously bad for the liver. When a person drinks alcohol, the body treats it as a toxin and attempts to eliminate it. The liver is responsible for breaking alcohol down so it can be removed from the body. During this process, alcohol is metabolized into the highly reactive and toxic chemical acetaldehyde, which is harmful to liver cells. (6) Unfortunately, 5-HTP by itself may also harm the liver. Research suggests that taking 5-HTP while eating a diet high in fats and fructose may damage the liver in several ways. (7) For these reasons, mixing alcohol and 5-HTP can increase the risk of liver damage.

Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder

If you have experienced adverse alcohol-related effects but are struggling to quit drinking, you may have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V) provides 11 specific criteria for diagnosing AUD. Depending on the number of criteria you’ve experienced within the past year, you may have mild, moderate, or severe AUD. These criteria can be found HERE.

Another resource for determining whether you have an AUD is the CAGE Questionnaire. This tool is designed to identify an AUD by asking the following questions:

  • Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
  • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover (eye-opener)?

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A large body of research has shown that addiction is a chronic brain disease that is best addressed as a complex condition with many causes and effects. While 5-HTP is not considered to have a potential for misuse, alcohol is highly addictive. Those who’ve developed dependence often find it challenging to curb their drinking habits. Because 5-HTP and alcohol have adverse interactions, people using 5-HTP for therapeutic purposes are urged to quit drinking and seek professional treatment if needed.

Guardian Recovery offers comprehensive treatment programs designed to address all aspects of addiction, mental health, and the underlying factors that contribute to them. Contact us today to speak with an experienced Treatment Advisor for a free, no-obligation assessment and health insurance benefits check. We are dedicated to providing those attempting to break from drug and alcohol dependence with the tools, education, and resources they need to sustain long-term sobriety and wellness.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4065474/ (2)https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article/78/1/77/5555860?login=false (3)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554406/ (4)https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/natural/794.html (5)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482377/ (6)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6527027/ (7)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3186417/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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