The Dangers of Mixing Alcohol & 5-HTP


Published On: January 10, 2024

What is 5-HTP?

5-HTP stands for 5-hydroxytryptophan, which is a dietary supplement used to treat a wide range of mood disorders and other issues.

Our bodies naturally make 5-HTP[1], but some people take extra to give their serotonin levels an added boost.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in our brains. It’s responsible for regulating our mood, sleep pattern and pain management.

What Can 5-HTP Be Used to Treat?

A man researching how to use 5-HTP to treat addiction

Seen as a ‘happy pill’, 5-HTP supplements can be bought over the counter to treat a wide range of neurologic and metabolic diseases.

Although research is still ongoing, there is some evidence to show positive effects when treating:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • panic disorders
  • sleep disorders & insomnia
  • obesity & appetite problems
  • myoclonus
  • serotonin syndrome[2]

It even plays a role in cognition, reward, learning and memory[3], making it highly sought after among people wanting to keep their brain and body in optimum health.

Is 5-HTP Safe?

A doctor typing on a keyboard with a stethoscope to her side

5-HTP is a relatively new supplement still undergoing research.

Tryptophan use has been associated with liver and brain toxicity, and eosinophilic myalgia syndrome (EMS).

This caused the FDA to ban the sale of all tryptophan supplements in 1989.[4]

Can Anyone Take 5-HTP?

If you have high blood pressure or diabetes, consult your GP before taking these dietary supplements.[5]

What are Natural Sources of 5-HTP? Oats - a good source of tryptophan

Good sources of tryptophan (a building block of 5-HTP) are:

  • meat – chicken & turkey
  • dairy – milk & cheese
  • bread
  • chocolate
  • tuna
  • oats
  • bananas
  • dried prunes[6]

How Does the Body Process 5-HTP?

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid.

When we eat foods containing tryptophan, our digestive system gets to work to convert it into 5-HTP.

5-HTP assists the central nervous system in transporting serotonin to where it needs to be.[7]

This brings our levels of serotonin higher.

Serotonin is a precursor to melatonin [8] – a hormone which times circadian rhythms and helps you to fall asleep and wake up at the right time so you can feel rested.

Are There any Side Effects of 5-HTP?

A woman with her hand on her heart experiencing heartburn

Anecdotally, people have reported a few common side effects of taking these herbal supplements.

These often only result from prolonged use of a high dose, and include:

  • nausea
  • heartburn
  • stomach pain
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • drowsiness
  • muscle rigidity
  • sexual problems
  • rapid heartbeat

Is Mixing Alcohol and 5-HTP Dangerous?

Wine

Ethanol is a main component of alcohol[9], and this can chemically react with herbal remedies and medications.

Anecdotally, you will find a lot of advice online telling you it’s a bad idea to drink while taking 5-HTP supplements.

Not enough research has been done for us to say definitively whether alcohol and 5-HTP are a dangerous combination.

Below we unpack some of the alleged reasons that this mix could be harmful.

Alcohol Stops 5-HTP from Working

Although you may get a temporary serotonin boost from drinking, alcohol depletes serotonin levels in the long run.[10]

This means all of the good work your 5-HTP supplements have achieved so far is undone, and any problems you’ve been experiencing as a result of low serotonin levels can come back in full force.

5-HTP Increases the Effects of Alcohol

A man taking off his glasses and rubbing his face

Like antidepressants, mixing alcohol and 5-HTP can exacerbate the depressant effects of alcohol, making you more impaired more quickly.[11]

This means you’re more at risk of the negative effects that binge drinking has on your mind, body and relationships[12].

Hepatoxicity

Drug-induced hepatotoxicity is a liver injury that’s caused by drugs or herbal compounds.[13]

Although there is no research available to show that this can occur in humans, there has been one case reported of a dog experiencing toxicity from 5-HTP.[14]

You Risk Serotonin Syndrome

A brain on a white background

Serotonin syndrome – also known as serotonin toxicity – is a serious and potentially deadly condition caused by too much serotonin within the synapses of the brain[15].

Brought on by SSRIs, antidepressants, medications and other drugs[16], serotonin syndrome can also be caused by mixing these with alcohol[17].

Symptoms of serotonin syndrome include:

  • tremors
  • anxiety
  • rigid muscles
  • hyperthermia
  • vomiting 
  • diarrhoea

This syndrome is still under investigation, but most cases can be cured by simply coming off the drugs or supplements.

You Increase Your Chances of Liver Damage

Dummy humans with internal organs displayed on a counter

Although there’s little research to suggest that combining 5-HTP with alcohol is the cause of liver problems, both 5-HTP and alcohol when taken separately can cause adverse effects on the organ.

There’s plenty of research to suggest alcohol in excess damages the liver[18].

Now, we’re learning that serotonin deficiency can negatively affect the liver too[19].

One study reported that activating the brain’s serotonergic system (which is the role 5-HTP plays) affects the regulation of the liver[20].

Therefore, if you are taking both HTP supplements and alcohol, you could be putting double the strain on your liver.

So Why Do People Take 5-HTP with Alcohol?

There’s a craze for mixing 5-HTP with booze to try to enhance the effects of alcohol and get more drunk.

However, for the reasons mentioned above, we strongly advise being cautious about this.

The Science Behind Mixing Alcohol and 5-HTP

A model brain neuron showing the impact of 5-HTP

There is a theory that supplements which affect serotonin when taken with alcohol can be dangerous.

The results of mixing serotonin-regulating medication and alcohol is still being measured, but scientists believe it could have something to do with the way serotonin levels mediate alcohol’s effects on the brain.[21]

The process by which our brains pass messages to our central nervous system is called serotonergic signal transmission.

When we drink alcohol, it changes the way our brains transport serotonin across neurons.

As 5-HTP boosts serotonin levels, the two chemicals can create a hormonal imbalance.

This is why some medications can enhance the sedative effects of alcohol.[22]

Other medications you should be wary of mixing with alcohol include:

  • antibiotics
  • antidepressant medications (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)
  • antihistamines
  • barbiturates
  • benzodiazepines and sleep aids
  • muscle relaxants
  • opioids

How can I Avoid the Risks of Mixing Alcohol and 5-HTP?

A woman taking a 5-HTP pill

  1. Speak to your GP – a medical professional will be able to give you advice that’s informed and suitable for your body and health
  2. Find an alternative – therapy and exercise can help you improve your wellbeing
  3. Look at the facts – read the label of any medication you take to determine if it’s safe to consume with alcohol
  4. Avoid alcohol – if you are looking to reduce anxiety and depression, you’ll see a greater boost in your mood by staying away from alcohol

How Long Should I Wait Between Taking 5-HTP and Drinking?

Wait at least one day after you’ve taken 5-HTP before having your first alcoholic beverage.

This will ensure you don’t have a very high concentration in your system at the same time as alcohol.

What are Some Alternatives to 5-HTP?

An older person in a hat and coat taking a walk

Therapy

If you’re looking to improve your mental health, therapy has some of the best success rates for beating mental health conditions.

The NHS reports that 66.4% of patients showed reliable improvement after undergoing psychological therapy.[23]

Successful types of therapy include:

  • CBT
  • DBT
  • EMDR
  • holistic therapies
  • group therapies

Exercise

Exercise has been proven effective at treating a wide range of mental health issues.

In a study of depressed patients, 60.4% of people treated with an exercise programme no longer showed symptoms after 16 weeks.[24]

And the good news is, you don’t need to break a sweat. Even walking for 20 minutes three times a week is enough to feel the benefits.

You could try:

  • walking
  • yoga
  • running
  • cycling

Mindfulness Practices

Mindfulness simply means being present in the moment, and being aware of your thoughts, feelings and senses.

Mindfulness can significantly reduce depressive episodes.[25]

This can include:

  • yoga
  • meditation
  • colouring
  • breathwork

Alcohol and 5-HTP FAQs

A stethoscope, plasters and pills

What is Serotonin Syndrome?

Serotonin syndrome or serotonin toxicity is a condition caused by excess serotonin levels within the brain’s synapses.

The increased levels of serotonin cause a hormonal imbalance that can result in:

  • anxiety – sweating and confusion
  • restlessness – feeling unable to focus
  • reflex problems – spasms and twitching

Can I Take Other Supplements with 5-HTP?

Currently, there aren’t any supplements that are proven safe to consume alongside 5-HTP.

Be careful taking 5-HTP with any other remedy that causes drowsiness like poppy, chamomile and catnip, as this can cause you to feel too sleepy.

Is it Safe to Drive after Drinking Alcohol and Taking 5-HTP Separately?

You should never drive under the influence of a sedative, as this can be dangerous, so it’s not recommended to drive after taking 5-HTP.

It’s illegal in the UK to drive if you are over the limit, so driving after you’ve had too much to drink is another big no-no.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

A woman addicted to alcohol staring sadly out of an office window

Alcohol use disorder encompasses alcohol abuse, dependence, addiction and ‘alcoholism’.

It’s an illness where people struggle to control their use, think about alcohol a lot and keep drinking even when it’s causing problems in their life.

Can 5-HTP Help with Alcohol Dependence?

One study showed a reduction in alcohol intake in rats treated with 5-HTP.[26]

However, more research will need to be completed in humans before we can definitively say that this is an effective treatment for alcohol dependence.

How Can I Recover from Alcohol Use Disorder?

If you are looking to reduce your alcohol intake or recover from alcoholism, we can help.

Whether you have insurance that covers rehab or not, there are many healthcare providers across the UK that offer help to suit any budget.

Your recovery model can be made personalised to your unique addiction, needs and any other conditions.

Our hotline is manned by a team of non-judgemental people who can offer addiction advice and help you decide if rehab is right for you or your loved one.

Call 0800 111 4108 today.

An elderly man smiling

 References

[1] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016372580500135X

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7796270/#:~:text=5%2DHTP%20has%20the%20potential,sleep%20and%20reduces%20sleep%20disorder.

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7796270/#:~:text=L%2D5%2Dhydroxytryptophan%20(5%2DHTP)%20is%20produced,other%20physiological%20processes%20%5B1%5D.

[4] https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/5-hydroxytryptophan-5-htp

[5] https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/5-hydroxytryptophan-5-htp

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908021/#:~:text=Some%20common%20sources%20of%20tryptophan,chocolate%20(see%20Table%201).

[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9727088/#:~:text=5%2DHTP%20is%20well%20absorbed,(CNS)%20synthesis%20of%20serotonin.

[8] https://febs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1016/S0014-5793%2801%2903319-1

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK531662/#:~:text=Ethanol%20and%20water%20are%20the,fermentation%20of%20carbohydrates%20with%20yeast

[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826824/

[11] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1600-0447.1990.tb05318.x

[12] https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

[13] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0944711323005019

[14] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6332764/

[15] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6184959/

[16] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482377/

[17] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30844852/

[18] https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/stomach-liver-and-gastrointestinal-tract/alcohol-related-liver-disease/

[19] https://www.nature.com/articles/srep08098

[20] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006295215007236

[21] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826824/#:~:text=Serotonin%20plays%20an%20important%20role,of%20specific%20serotonin%20receptor%20proteins.

[22] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6761694/

[23] https://digital.nhs.uk/news/2018/more-than-half-of-patients-who-finished-psychological-therapy-recovered-in-2017-18#:~:text=In%20total%2C%2050.8%25%20of%20people,improvement%20after%20undergoing%20psychological%20therapy.

[24] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/#:~:text=The%20percentage%20of%20patients%20in,67).

[25] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0005796710000719

[26] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/syn.20239

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