Preventing Chronic Headaches

Chronic headache victims may want to consider supplementing with 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)—a precursor to the amino acid serotonin—as a preventive strategy for future headaches. Serotonin supplementation hasn't been effective in easing headaches because it can't be absorbed into the brain. In contrast, 5-HTP is easily absorbed. This enhances serotonin production within the body and in turn prevents future headaches. Several studies are showing these results.

More than 15 years ago, researchers explored 5-HTP's role in mediating pain. When 5-HTP was given to a variety of headache sufferers, they reported modest effects in reducing the frequency and severity of headaches. A more recent study with 78 chronic tension-headache sufferers found that over an eight-week period patients on 5-HTP showed a significant reduction in the number of pain-relieving drugs taken for immediate relief and modest reductions in the number of days without headaches. The most notable change, however, came in the two-week period after supplementation ceased: The number of headaches experienced was half that seen in the placebo group. Although the reason for this "carryover" effect is a mystery, similar results have been seen with antidepressant drugs.

One common side effect of prescription headache drugs is weight gain. However, the 5-HTP patients in this study did not gain any weight. While 5-HTP may not alleviate pain after headaches set in, it does appear to be effective at preventing them.

Nutrition and exercise biochemist Anthony Almada, MS, has collaborated on more than 45 university-based studies and is founder and chief scientific officer of IMAGINutrition.