Tryptophan Benefits, Food Sources, and Side Effects

What is Tryptophan?

Tryptophan is one of the 9 essential amino acids that the body uses to synthesize the proteins it needs, which means that the human body cannot synthesize it on its own and must obtain it from dietary sources.

Many of us may be familiar with tryptophan as the purported cause of the post-Thanksgiving dinner nap. While the sleepy feeling that follows Thanksgiving dinner probably has multiple causes, turkey does contain a significant amount of tryptophan, and tryptophan is believed, under certain circumstances, to produce a sense of relaxation and/or drowsiness.

Dietary sources of tryptophan include foods such as turkey, chicken, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, soy products, and certain fish. Tryptophan supplements are also available and are sometimes used to address specific dietary or health needs.

Tryptophan Benefits, Food Sources, and Side Effects-CookingEggs

Tryptophan Function in the Body

Amino acids, including tryptophan, are used as building blocks in protein biosynthesis, and proteins are required to sustain life. Tryptophan plays several important roles in the body, including:

  • Protein Synthesis
    Cells use tryptophan to create proteins, which are necessary for the body's structure and function.
  • Preventing Niacin Deficiency
    Tryptophan has two important functions. The liver first converts a small portion (about 3%) of the tryptophan in our diet into niacin (vitamin B3). This conversion can help prevent the symptoms associated with niacin deficiency when the dietary intake of this vitamin is low.
  • Raising Serotonin Levels
    Tryptophan serves as a precursor for serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps the body regulate appetite, sleep patterns, and mood. Because of its ability to raise serotonin levels, tryptophan has been used therapeutically in the treatment of a variety of conditions, most notably insomnia, depression, and anxiety.
  • Melatonin Production
    Tryptophan is also a precursor for melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin production is important for maintaining healthy sleep patterns.

What Can High-tryptophan Foods Do For You?

  • Help regulate your appetite
  • Help you sleep better
  • Elevate your mood

What Events Indicate A Need For More High-tryptophan Foods?

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Impatience
  • Impulsiveness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Weight gain or unexplained weight loss
  • Slow growth in children
  • Overeating and/or carbohydrate cravings
  • Poor dream recall
  • Insomnia

8 Health Benefits of Tryptophan

Tryptophan offers several potential benefits to the body and overall health due to its various roles and functions. Some of the key benefits of tryptophan include:

1. Mood and Emotional Well-Being

Tryptophan is a precursor for the neurotransmitter serotonin, which plays a crucial role in regulating mood and emotions. Adequate tryptophan intake may help support a positive mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

2. Sleep Regulation

Tryptophan is also a precursor for melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Consuming tryptophan-rich foods or supplements can potentially promote better sleep and address issues like insomnia.

3. Cognitive Function

Serotonin, derived from tryptophan, is important for cognitive function and may play a role in enhancing memory, learning, and overall brain health.

4. Stress Reduction

Serotonin levels are linked to stress management. An adequate supply of tryptophan can help the body better cope with stress and reduce stress-related symptoms.

5. Appetite Control

Serotonin is involved in regulating appetite and satiety. Consuming tryptophan-rich foods may help with better appetite control and potentially support weight management.

6. Niacin Production

Tryptophan can be converted into niacin (vitamin B3), which is essential for various metabolic processes in the body. Adequate niacin levels are important for skin health, nerve function, and energy production.

7. Immune Support

Tryptophan plays a role in supporting the immune system. It is important for the production of antibodies and other immune-related molecules.

8. Pain Management

Some research suggests that tryptophan may help reduce sensitivity to pain, making it a potential adjunct to pain management strategies.


What Are Deficiency Symptoms for Tryptophan?

As an essential amino acid, dietary deficiency of tryptophan may cause the symptoms characteristic of protein deficiency, which include weight loss and impaired growth in infants and children.

When accompanied by a dietary niacin deficiency, a lack of tryptophan in the diet may also cause pellagra. This is a classic niacin deficiency disease: inflamed skin, diarrhea, dementia, and sores in the mouth. This condition is very rare in the United States, however, and cannot occur simply because of a tryptophan deficiency.

A dietary deficiency of tryptophan may lead to low levels of serotonin. Low serotonin levels are associated with depression, anxiety, irritability, impatience, impulsiveness, inability to concentrate, weight gain, overeating, carbohydrate cravings, poor dream recall, and insomnia.


What Factors Might Contribute to the Deficiency of Tryptophan?

Vitamin B6 is necessary for the conversion of tryptophan to both niacin and serotonin. Consequently, a dietary deficiency of vitamin B6 may result in low serotonin levels and/or impaired conversion of tryptophan to niacin.

In addition, several dietary, lifestyle, and health factors reduce the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, including cigarette smoking, high sugar intake, alcohol abuse, excessive consumption of protein, hypoglycemia, and diabetes.


Side Effects of Tryptophan

Potential side effects of tryptophan supplementation include nausea, diarrhea, drowsiness, lightheadedness, headache, dry mouth, blurred vision, sedation, euphoria, and nystagmus (involuntary eye movements).


Food Sources of Tryptophan

Tryptophan is present in most protein-based foods or dietary proteins. It is particularly plentiful in chocolate, oats, dried dates, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, red meat, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, buckwheat, spirulina, and peanuts.
Below is a list of foods that are relatively high in tryptophan:

List of High Tryptophan Foods

Foods (per 100g)Tryptophan Content
Egg White Powder1427 mg
Soy Protein Powder1116 mg
Dried Spirulina929 mg
Soybeans590 mg
Dried Pumpkin Seeds576 mg
Cheese Parmesan560 mg
Mozzarella515 mg
Dried Parsley475 mg
Chia Seeds436 mg
Lamb Shoulder Roast415 mg
Pan Fried Bacon407 mg
Lean Chicken Breast404 mg
Roast Goose403 mg
Toasted Wheat Germ398 mg
Fenugreek Seed391 mg
Chuck Steak382 mg
Broiled Pork Tenderloin376 mg
Cooked Fish Roe375 mg
Sesame Seeds371 mg

It's worth noting that while tryptophan offers these potential benefits, individual responses to tryptophan supplementation or dietary changes can vary. It's important to maintain a balanced diet that includes all essential amino acids.


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