Tryptophan Health Benefits That You Don’t Want to Be Without

Tryptophan Health Benefits by The Healthy RD
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Tryptophan health benefits are very promising and vast. But, when people think of tryptophan, one word mostly comes to mind: turkey. 

Let’s explore this substance called tryptophan, which is so much more than a Thanksgiving nap inducer.

Turkey isn’t the highest in tryptophan of foods. But, it definitely is in the conversation.

Tryptophan, like many amino acids in foods, also doesn’t get the respect it deserves.   It has numerous roles in the body as a neurotransmitter and hormone precursor.

It is essential to the body, meaning it can’t be made within the body; we need to get it from food or supplemental sources.

In this post, find out about the benefits of tryptophan, how to optimize tryptophan in your diet, and ways to supplement tryptophan.

Tryptophan in Food and the Health of the Gut

Tryptophan is present in many foods, but competes with other amino acids, so its fate in making happy mood chemicals like serotonin is difficult.

Also, keep in mind that the bioavailability of tryptophan from plant sources is often lower than animal sources.

In irritable bowel syndrome or gut inflammatory disorders, changes in the balance of microbiota are associated with symptomatology as well as alterations to both gut and brain serotonin levels likely due to abnormal tryptophan metabolism.

In order to optimize tryptophan levels getting ample probiotics is important.

One study in athletes found that probiotics prevented the tryptophan depletion of exercise. This probiotic contained Bifidobacterium bifidum W23, Bifidobacterium lactis W51, Enterococcus faecium W54, Lactobacillus acidophilus W22, Lactobacillus brevis W63, and Lactococcus lactis W5.

Some experts have also researched the fact that tryptophan metabolism is greatly impaired by the use of the chemical glyphosate, which is essentially everywhere in the foods supply.

This underscores the need for avoidance of chemically sprayed foods, and grains and legumes sadly are the fodder for heavy glyphosate use.

When in doubt, choose organically sourced foods to minimize chemical exposure to optimize tryptophan in the body.

Still, getting enough tryptophan in the diet is critical. Here are some levels of tryptophan in foods.

Food Sources of Tryptophan

Chart of the tryptophan content in foods by The Healthy RD
Tryptophan content of foods based on myfooddatacom

  • Skirt steak (6 ounces)
  • Salmon (6 ounces) 637 mg
  • Canned Tuna (per ounce) 472 mg
  • Lamb per 1/4 pound: 400 mg
  • Turkey (per 6 ounces) 488 mg
  • Crab per 1/4 pound 300 mg
  • Chicken (4 ounces) 256 mg
  • Edamame (per cup) 464 mg
  • Whole Milk (per cup) 183 mg
  • Wheat Bread (per slice)193 mg
  • Semisweet Chocolate (per ounce) 182 mg
  • Pumpkin seeds (per ounce) 162 mg
  • Eggs (2) 150 mg
  • Cheddar Cheese (per ounce) 91 mg
  • Peanuts (per ounce) 65 mg
  • Spirulina (1 tbsp) 65 mg
  • Oats for Oatmeal (per cup) 147 mg
  • Dried Prune (one) 2 mg
  • Banana (one medium) 11 mg
  • Apple (one medium) 2 mg

As you can see, tryptophan is found in many foods.

However, tryptophan tends to cozy up with other amino acids for absorption, so its effects at turkey dinner time are even less than they might be if you just had straight tryptophan.

The sleepy turkey dinner phenomenon results mostly as a result of a large number of calories being digested, forcing a large amount of blood supply to be focused on digestion, an intensive process with all that food.

Sleepy time indeed.

Do People Get Tryptophan Deficiency?

Yes.  But it is often difficult to tease this out because people who run low in tryptophan would also be low in other amino acids and nutrients.

Think of a person on a limited budget or who has a preference for carbohydrate foods and eats little else.

Others who might be low in tryptophan might be chronically ill with a poor appetite.

These people do not get enough amino acids in their daily intake.

Think poor college student who eats ramen noodle meals, pasta, and toast.  Mix, match, and repeat. Think poverty or eating disorders; you will likely see some symptoms of deficiency.

Tryptophan Health Benefits for Sleep

Tryptophan metabolism into melatonin by The Healthy RD

Tryptophan helps make serotonin, which in helps make melatonin.

Most people know about melatonin and sleep, but few people know how it is made and its dependency on tryptophan in the diet.

In other words, tryptophan is necessary for sleep.

Additionally, supplemental tryptophan may help with sleep quality and duration.

Using tryptophan supplements may even help sleep quality in people with obstructive sleep apnea.

Related post: L-Tyrosine Changed My Life

Tryptophan Health Benefits for Mood 

Tryptophan is the building block of serotonin, a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter.

Without enough tryptophan in the body, depressive symptoms kick in. 

That is not to say that tryptophan is the only factor in mood, but one of the factors involved in making a person feel calm and happy.

A lesser-known, but certainly important function of tryptophan related to mood is that it is a precursor to a substance called kynurenine.

90% of tryptophan metabolism is dedicated to making kynurenine, which is involved in behavior and memory. Research on this topic remains early.

Tryptophan in clinical research in total appears to be helpful for depression. 

One important bit of information: you should talk to your doctor before adding tryptophan, as it may have serious interactions with SSRI or other depression medications, especially at higher doses.

In a meta-analysis or compilation-type study, reduced blood levels of tryptophan were found in patients with major depression.

However, some depressed patients don’t suffer from low serotonin levels.  In these cases, tryptophan will not improve symptoms.

Tryptophan supplements may help with symptoms of PMS,  especially dysphoria, tension, and irritability.

Tryptophan Health Benefits: Reduces Anxiety 

Anxiety is a vexxing problem and rates of generalized anxiety continue to rise. Luckily, research is now showing that using tryptophan supplements may help ease this debilitating condition.

Interestingly, tryptophan given as 5-HTP acts to reduce symptoms of panic, at least acutely. 

Tryptophan given before stress reduces the hormonal and behavioral effects of stress as well according to research in rats.

Tryptophan depletion in humans worsens symptoms of stress and anxiety in people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder.

All combined, this shows that tryptophan is essential for helping keep people more calm.

Tryptophan Health Benefits for Appetite

Perhaps the strongest research on tryptophan is related to its ability to reduce appetite in clinical studies.

Tryptophan given as 5-HTP reduced appetite and food intake and helped with weight loss over a 5-week period.

Also, when 5-HTP was given at 900 mg per day, it also resulted in a reduced appetite and reduced weight in obese women over a 6 month period.

5-HTP also helps with weight loss and reduces appetite in people with diabetes.

Additionally, people who are low in tryptophan may be more likely to binge and overeat foods. For example, in a study of patients with bulimia nervosa, those who were depleted of tryptophan ate over a third more food than those not depleted of tryptophan. Those low in tryptophan were also more irritable.

Tryptophan Health Benefits: Niacin

Niacin, one of the B vitamins involved in energy production, can be made from tryptophan if enough cofactors like B-6 and iron are present.

Deficiency of both niacin and tryptophan have the same result:  a disease called pellagra.

Symptoms of this disease include the 4 D’s: delusions, diarrhea, depression, and dermatitis.

While overt deficiencies are rare, poor-quality diets can elicit subtle symptoms that go undetected all of the time.

Tryptophan and Memory

Depletion of tryptophan impairs memory.

In fact, it rapidly causes memory loss according to research. In order for your brain to work well, you need ample amounts of tryptophan.

Tryptophan Health Benefits for Migraine and Motion Sickness

Low tryptophan in the diet may cause symptoms of migraines.

It may result in worsening dizziness, nausea, and the illusion of movement.

The depletion of tryptophan also worsens nausea and light-induced pain in migraine sufferers.

In other words, if you suffer from migraines or motion sickness, you should make sure to optimize tryptophan in your diet and consider supplementing tryptophan.

Considerations Before Supplementing

Tryptophan’s full name is L-tryptophan or 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP).  These are the forms that are available in supplements.

However, most supplements available in the United States are the safe version called 5-HTP.

In the 1990s, L-tryptophan supplements were removed from the market due to some cases of EMS.  The supplement in question was traced back to one factory in Japan.  Since then, no cases of EMS have been reported.

Much of the tryptophan on the market today is sold as 5-HTP, which is often naturally sourced from the plant called Griffonia. The label will tell you if it is naturally sourced. No cases of EMS have been linked to 5-HTP.

A possible side effect of supplemental tryptophan is nausea.

Typical amounts of doses ranging from 100-300 mg of 5-HTP per day. Higher doses (900 mg) have been used to promote weight loss.

Tryptophan and Tyrosine

Taking tryptophan has a downside; it might deplete another amino acid called tyrosine

Tyrosine is involved in making another neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Some experts suggest that if you take tryptophan supplements, it may also be beneficial to take tyrosine supplements.

A supplement that has both 5-HTP and tryptophan in it that is rigorously tested is called Neurolink by Brain MD.

Medication Interactions With Tryptophan

Corticosteroids like prednisone may reduce the availability of tryptophan and tyrosine in the blood, especially in depressed patients.  This might be why sleep evades people on these medicines.

Supplementing tryptophan may help people sleep who take corticosteroids although more research is needed.

Serotonin syndrome is a theoretical concern for people who are taking anti-depressants along with tryptophan; however, this has not been seen in people, even when taking prescription anti-depressants.  These studies have all been small.

To be sure, it is always best to check in with your doctor before supplementing tryptophan.

The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.

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