Tryptophan: a Natural Sleep Aid and Antidepressant
Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, is credited with making people sleepy after eating a big Thanksgiving dinner. That’s because turkey contains tryptophan. Tryptophan makes serotonin, which produces melatonin. And melatonin helps you sleep longer and deeper.
While it’s true that turkey contains tryptophan, tryptophan actually works best on an empty stomach. It’s really the overeating that puts everyone to sleep.
In addition to helping you sleep better, tryptophan affects your moods, weight and stress levels. In fact, the supplement, L–tryptophan, is used to treat insomnia, stress, anxiety, migraines, PMS and weight problems.
Decades before Prozac hit the market, L–tryptophan was used successfully as an antidepressant. It’s such an effective alternative that today many people call it “nature’s Prozac.”
The Mood Food Connection
Tryptophan makes a substance called 5–hydroxytryptophan (5–HTP) that’s used to make serotonin. And serotonin gives you a temporary feeling of calmness and well–being. Carbohydrates help you get more tryptophan to the brain, which is why you crave them when you’re stressed out or depressed.
When you eat a carbohydrate, it’s turned into sugar (glucose). In response, the pancreas secretes insulin into the blood to remove the excess sugar. Insulin also clears the blood of other amino acids. These amino acids compete with tryptophan for transport to the brain—there is limited room on transport carriers—so with less competition, more tryptophan gets transported.
But, there’s a big downside. Insulin moves sugar into your cells to be used for energy. When you eat too many carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates, like white bread and pasta, the result is too much sugar in the blood, and the excess is turned into fat.
Why It’s Hard to Get Enough Tryptophan
The Blood-Brain Barrier
Foods that contain tryptophan have very little of it. Plus, the small amount that we do get has a hard time getting past the blood-brain barrier. This barrier’s job is to keep toxins and excessive levels of nutrients from entering the brain. Unfortunately, it also makes it hard for tryptophan to enter.
High Protein Diet
As mentioned above, to travel to the brain via the bloodstream, tryptophan also has to compete with other amino acids for space on transport carriers. Because a high–protein diet increases the amount of these competing amino acids in the bloodstream, tryptophan is outnumbered and less makes it to the brain.
A poor diet, oral contraception, hypertension, anxiety, and stress all degrade or break down, tryptophan.
Best Vegetarian Sources of Tryptophan
The best vegetarian sources are spinach, asparagus, soybeans, cheese (the highest amounts are in cottage cheese, parmesan, and Swiss cheese), eggs, nuts (almonds are the best), peanuts, wheat germ, and sesame and pumpkin seeds.
Tryptophan is an important amino acid for your emotional health and well-being. But to get enough, balance is key. Be sure to eat foods high in tryptophan together with some whole–grain carbohydrates every day.
Eric R. Braverman, M.D., The Healing Nutrients Within, (CA: Basic Health)
James South MA, “L–Tryptophan — Nature’s answer to Prozac.”
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services