I have fibromyalgia, and I have STILL stumbled across the best-kept secret for guaranteed great sleep. Fibromyalgia and sleep are not easy bedfellows, as you know all too well if you have fibro.
I’ve been having the BEST sleep lately. Sleeping right through a solid six to eight hours, without even getting up to pee. It was as I was quitting amitriptyline – which I took faithfully just before bed every night for fifteen years –that I was desperately looking for alternative therapies that would help me sleep.
Then one of the fibro warriors I interviewed for my book, The Trauma Trigger, recommended 5-HTP. And I read and started adopting the practices of The Clean Gut, by Dr Alejandro Junger, which reminded me of the importance of taking magnesium just before bed.
Before we discuss how 5-HTP works, a bit about what goes on in the fibro brain.
Serotonin and Fibro
Serotonin is one of the so-called “hormones of happiness”. Research tells us that those of us with fibromyalgia have low levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in pain, sleep and appetite. It interacts with endorphins and ‘substance P’ to mess with our pain tolerance levels. (I bristle at the suggestion that I simply have low tolerance to pain. Maybe it is scientifically true but I am not a wimp. I quite simply HURT all over, almost all the time.)
To help treat the symptoms of fibromyalgia, doctors prescribe drugs that increase serotonin activity: these drugs include tricyclic antidepressants (like the amitriptyline I took faithfully for fifteen years) and other serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). But those medications do more than just address pain and promote sleep: they also have unwanted or unpleasant side effects and can alter mood.
Turns out there is another way to increase serotonin levels to help with fibro pain and insomnia.
Enter 5-Hydroxytryptophan or 5-HTP
5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) increases serotonin levels in the brain. It promotes restorative sleep, which in turn helps reduce pain symptoms. Foods in our diet provide the protein building blocks that get converted to 5-HTP, which then leads to increased serotonin. Here’s the process.
The synthesis of serotonin in the body begins with L-tryptophan, one of the essential amino acids we get through our diet. L-tryptophan is converted to niacin (vitamin B3) and 5-HTP. The 5-HTP crosses the blood-brain barrier much more easily than the pre-conversion L-tryptophan, which is one of the reasons it is such an effective substance for increasing serotonin levels.
Foods containing L-tryptophan include nuts, seeds, red meat, turkey and chicken, eggs, lentils, beans, oats, fish and eggs. 5-HTP is a by-product of the protein building blocks from these foods, but it is also found naturally in a plant common to West Africa, called Griffonica simplicifolia. The chemical is commercially harvested from these plants, processed, packaged and sold around the world.
Fibro and 5-HTP for Great Sleep
In the early 90’s researchers conducted a 90-day double-blind study with 50 fibromyalgia patients. They took a baseline measurement of the number of tender points, pain intensity, anxiety, fatigue and quality of sleep. There were significant improvements when compared to the baseline measurements. The conclusion is that 5-HTP is indeed effective in improving primary fibromyalgia symptoms.
Other studies have shown that the effective daily doses of 5-HTP are between 200 and 1,000 mg. Because I tend to be uber sensitive, I started slow, with just 100mg at bedtime for the first six weeks.
I didn’t experience any mild nausea, which is apparently the most common side effect, but taking it with food should deal with that. Taking it with vitamin B6 can help the body convert the 5-HTP to serotonin.
It is important not to take 5-HTP with any antidepressants that also boost serotonin activity. Too much serotonin can cause something called Serotonin Syndrome, which is dangerous. You can check the list of excessive serotonin symptoms here.
My Great Sleep Experience
The first few nights I took 100mg of 5-HTP (below the bottom threshold of 200mg), I slept right through the night for between seven and eight hours. Then the effectiveness seemed to ease up a bit, and I could count on getting five to six before my bladder booted me out of bed and into the bathroom. I would, however, get right back to sleep for another couple hours.
But things really changed when I added a magnesium vitamin at bedtime along with the 5-HTP. It was instantaneous, and it’s been consistent for two weeks now. I’m getting great sleep, and I’m sleeping all night!!! I am now experimenting with increasing the dose to 100mg twice daily.
I am pretty excited about these results, and only wish I’d had the guts to stop taking amitriptyline much, much sooner. As I write this, I’m on day 10 of a 21-day Clean Gut cleanse: I’ll tell you how it goes and how I feel when I’m done!