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What is Tryptophan?

Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that our body receives naturally through food. The brain turns tryptophan into serotonin, which is then used as a neurotransmitter to carry messages across the central nervous system. The fact that tryptophan acts as a precursor to serotonin makes it useful for a number of applications.

For example, tryptophan is often used as a dietary supplement to help with anxiety, aggression, insomnia, depression and PMS. This is because serotonin is known to act in part as a natural and mild sedative as well as a mood modifier, and many of the disorders are linked to a serotonin imbalance.

Whilst serotonin cannot be taken as a supplement by itself, tryptophan and 5-HTP are the closest you can get. By ensuring the body has enough tryptophan, you provide the building blocks it needs to produce serotonin.

Natural dietary sources of tryptophan

Since the body cannot produce Tryptophan by itself, we need to take it up by food. This is easy, as it can be found naturally in many vegetables, meats and grains. Such examples of rich sources of tryptophan are:

- Beets, spinach, kelp, potatoes
- Mango, dates, bananas
- Oats, soybeans, wheat, rice, beans, lentils, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds
- Milk & Cheese
- Eggs
- Chicken and turkey meat
- Fish – cod, halibut and salmon
- Seaweed
- Game meat – such as rabbit, pheasant, elk and quail

The effects of tryptophan in the body

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. Most amino acids are used to synthesize proteins within the body, but tryptophan has a few other functions as well. As mentioned, tryptophan is a precursor to the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood, aggression, pain, memory, sleep, anxiety, eating behavior, temperature control, addictive behavior, motor skills and endocrine regulation (quite a lot that in itself makes stocking up tryptophan levels worthwhile!). What we have not covered is that tryptophan is also used by the body to create melatonin, a neurohormone that helps the body to regulate sleep patterns, as well as for the production of niacin, a B-vitamin.

Tryptophan acts as a building block for a whole array of functions within the body, and is essential to maintaining good health. Low levels of tryptophan can lead to depression and insomnia, as the body can’t produce what it needs to regulate itself. When you consider this, and that tryptophan is considered completely safe to consume, it makes for a perfect natural supplement.

Tryptophan as a sleep aid

Tryptophan, an amino acid found naturally in many foods, as well as being available by itself as a natural supplement, is an essential ingredient in the production of the neurotransmitters and neurohormones that put us to sleep. This means that anyone who is having problems drifting off at night should consider whether they are getting enough Tryptophane.

Tryptophan is used by the brain to produce serotonin and melatonin, both of which are heavily involved in regulating sleep and the biological clock. By increasing the amount of tryptophan within the body, it ensures that all the building blocks required for a good night’s sleep are present. Both serotonin and melatonin cannot be created without tryptophan, and tryptophan cannot be synthesized naturally within the body, making its consumption essential. A deficiency in either of the two chemicals can lead to such disorders as insomnia.

By introducing additional tryptophan, it is possible to improve quality of sleep, as well as help alleviate and treat sleeping disorders. Over the last 20 years there have been over 40 research studies into the effects of tryptophan on sleep and human sleepiness, with the general consensus being that tryptophan increases perceived levels of sleepiness and decreases sleep latency (the time required to fall asleep). Results also suggest that tryptophan increases the time spent asleep – of which best results were generally observed in those suffering from mild insomnia and those with prolonged periods of sleep latency.

The uses of Tryptophan

Tryptophan

If you have read our other articles in the information box on tryptophan, you will see we have already touched on a few of its uses, which are wide and varied. The following looks at its use in a bit more detail.

Insomnia

As largely discussed, tryptophan makes for an excellent natural sleeping aid, with numerous studies showing its ability to reduce sleep latency, increase sleepiness, and potentially increase the amount of time spent asleep in those with insomnia or who have trouble falling asleep. This is done through the stable production of serotonin and melatonin, for which tryptophan is an essential build block. Both of these chemicals are heavily involved in regulating sleep, and without sufficient amounts, sleep is easily disrupted.

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Pain reduction

Animal research has suggested that serotonin is involved in pain perception. As tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, it stands to reason that having an ample supply of tryptophan can help us deal with pain. This has been backed up by initial human testing. For example, in a double blind study, those recovering from gallbladder surgery reported less pain when given tryptophan. For reference, this is the study:

Ceccherelli F, Diani MM, Altafini L, et al. Postoperative pain treated by intravenous L-tryptophan: A double-blind study versus placebo in cholecystectomized patients. Pain 1991;47:163-72.**

Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)

As commonly known, serotonin plays a large role in mood regulation. Double-blind studies have shown that the increase in serotonin as a result of tryptophan use reduces depression and other symptoms that can often result from PMS.

Depression

Depression is a complex disorder that can be caused by both psychological and physiological reasons. In the case of a physiological depression, a serotonin imbalance can be an underlying origin. Depression and other mood disorders have been linked to an imbalance of serotonin in the brain, with low levels of tryptophan within the body also being associate with depression. Tryptophan is converted to serotonin within the brain, where the imbalance is most prevalent. Introducing high amounts of tryptophan into the body helps to boost serotonin production, helping to overcome deficiencies, and alleviate the symptoms of depression.

Anxiety

Research into the field suggests that serotonin may be involved in the process that cause anxiety. Furthermore, a double-blind study found that tryptophan deficiencies cause the symptoms of those suffering from anxiety disorders to worsen. It has been shown that having an ample supply of tryptophan can help alleviate and dampen the symptoms of such disorders. For reference:

Argyropoulos SV, Hood SD, Adrover M, et al. Tryptophan depletion reverses the therapeutic effect of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in social anxiety disorder. Biol Psychiatry 2004;56:503–9.

Bulimia

Serotonin is used to help regulate appetite and food intake. Those who suffer from eating disorders such as bulimia often have low levels of serotonin. By introducing extra tryptophan into the system, serotonin levels can be increased and the symptoms of eating disorders alleviated to a certain degree.

Note: we are not medical professionals nor should this be considered medical advice. Seek the advice of a trained medical professional if in doubt.

Side effects

At the recommended doses, Tryptophan is considered completely safe.

Side effects only occur with high doses above the safe recommended dose. Tryptophan increases serotonin levels, and when to much is produced it can result result in tremors, nausea and dizziness. This condition is known as the “serotonin syndrome”, which can happen faster when using 5-HTP. Caused by an overabundance of serotonin, delirium, myoclonus, hyperthermia and coma can ensue. This happens rarely, but to be on the safe side never surpass the recommended dose.

Note: we are not medical professionals. Please seek proper medical advice for further information on the subject or when in doubt.

The Turkey myth

There is a myth that eating tryptophan rich foods will put you to sleep. It is known as the turkey myth. There is an important distinction to make here. Eating tryptophan rich foods will help provide your body with the materials it needs to produce high levels of serotonin and melatonin, which both help regulate and promote healthy, natural sleep. The distinction is that they will not produce enough to make you feel drowsy.

The myth itself stems from the feeling many Americans experience after eating a large thanksgiving turkey meal. Quite often, after such a huge feast, one begins to feel drowsy and lethargic. It was widely believed that this was due to the relatively high tryptophan content within turkey meat. However, this feeling of sleepiness is more likely to be the result of feasting on copious amounts of food, eating them in poorly digestible combinations, drinking alcohol on top of it, and blood being diverted from the rest of the body to the gastrointestinal tract.

For tryptophan to actually induce drowsiness, and not just support healthy sleep, it must be taken as a pure supplement on an empty stomach. If any other proteins or amino acids are present, it will not induce sleepiness. For this reason, those who want to get sleepy need to take a pure supplement, ideally right before going to bed.

This happens because when consumed in food, tryptophan must compete with all of the other amino acids and nutrients that the body is trying to absorb. Meaning only a small portion of it is utilized and turned into serotonin and melatonin. When taken on an empty stomach in supplement form, there is no competition, and a great deal of melatonin is produced – inducing a sleepy feeling.

Consider this. Chicken, cheese and many other commonly eaten foods actually contain much higher amounts of tryptophan than turkey, but they do not usually induce a feeling of drowsiness after eating, largely because there are many other amino acids present.

It may seem quite surprising, but carbohydrate rich foods containing tryptophan are actually the best to eat. This is because carbs stimulate the pancreas, which releases insulin into the blood. This causes all the other amino acids tryptophan has to compete with to leave the bloodstream and enter the muscles, leaving tryptophan free reign to enter the brain.

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