When we talk about tryptophan foods, it is usually in reference to turkey and the post-Thanksgiving coma it induces. Tryptophan is one of 8 essential amino acids that our bodies need. The body uses tryptophan to produce serotonin, which can then used to make melatonin, our “sleep hormone.” But there is absolutely no need to eat turkey to get tryptophan. In fact, there are many plant sources of tryptophan which have much more of the amino acid than turkey.
When it comes to mental health and sleep, tryptophan really is a miracle substance. Studies show tryptophan supplements have numerous benefits, including relieving:
- Behavioral problems
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Binge eating and carb cravings (thus helping weight loss)
Tryptophan is so powerful that LEF magazine goes as far as saying,
“Tryptophan supplementation simply makes people nicer!”
The reason tryptophan is so powerful is because the body uses it to make serotonin, our “happy hormone” which regulates mood. Because some serotonin gets converted into melatonin, it is also associated with helping sleep. It is impossible to supplement with serotonin itself (even antidepressants don’t boost serotonin production levels; they just prevent serotonin from being absorbed so its effects last longer). You can, however, take tryptophan in order to naturally boost serotonin levels. Some of that serotonin is then used to make melatonin, which helps regulate sleep.
To give you an idea of how powerful tryptophan supplements are, consider these study results. In one study where 1000mg of tryptophan supplements was given to “quarrelsome” adults 3x per day, the subjects became more agreeable. When aggressive 10-year old boys were given 500mg of tryptophan supplements per day, they stopped getting so angry when provoked. By contrast, low levels of tryptophan are shown to induce depression, irritability, aggression, and other mood problems. As for sleep, even small amounts of tryptophan are shown to increase the quality of sleep and alleviate insomnia. (Source)
Getting the Benefits of Tryptophan
If you read through the tryptophan studies, you’ll see that all of the amazing benefits of tryptophan are linked to taking tryptophan supplements, and not natural sources of tryptophan from food.
But what about all those hyped-up claims that turkey helps you sleep? The real reason people feel sleepy after Thanksgiving probably has nothing to do with turkey and tryptophan, but rather because they ate too much. When you eat a lot of carbs (especially sugary ones like dessert), it produces a surge of serotonin in the brain which can make you feel happy and sleepy. Plus, your body has to use a lot of energy to digest all of those calories you consumed, which puts you into a coma-like stupor. Consider that the average Thanksgiving dinner has 4,500 calories. That is a lot for your body to digest!
In reality, when you eat tryptophan foods, most of that tryptophan is getting incorporated into tissue proteins or converted into other substances like niacin (source). Tryptophan from foods simply isn’t very good at getting to our brains.
As Scientific American explains, when you eat tryptophan foods, the tryptophan does get into the blood. To get to the brain, it needs to be transported by special proteins across the blood-brain barrier. The problem is that other amino acids are also competing for these transport proteins. The other amino acids are more adept at getting to those transport proteins and tryptophan has a hard time getting from the blood to the brain.
How to Get More Tryptophan from Food
Since tryptophan competes with other amino acids to get to the brain, eating tryptophan foods aren’t going to have a dramatic effect on your mood or sleepiness. But there is an interesting exception: Eating tryptophan foods with carbohydrates can help more tryptophan get to the brain.
When you eat carbs, your body produces insulin. Insulin causes some amino acids to be absorbed into tissues, but it doesn’t have much of an effect on tryptophan. As a result of the insulin, there are fewer competing amino acids and more tryptophan from foods can get to the brain. The American Nutrition Association points to numerous studies which show that eating tryptophan foods as part of a low-protein high-carb diet can improve mood and sleep (vegetarians seem to have an edge here). There are also some cofactors which can help convert tryptophan into serotonin. (Source 1, Source 2)
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin C
Finally, we now know that cytokines degrade tryptophan. Cytokines are pro-inflammatory proteins involved in the immune response. They are released when we are sick, and also in response to certain foods, like saturated fats and trans fats. There are some proven ways to reduce cytokine levels, including getting more Omega 3, eating antioxidant-rich foods, reducing saturated fat intake, and getting more fiber. Again, vegetarians seem to have an edge here. This might be another reason vegetarianism is linked to better mood.
Simply eating foods high in tryptophan isn’t going to help mood or sleep. To get the most of tryptophan from food, you need to:
- Eat tryptophan foods with some carbs
- Consume tryptophan cofactors (iron, vitamin C, vitamin B6, magnesium)
- Reduce cytokines levels which degrade tryptophan (eat more antioxidants and fiber, avoid saturated and trans fats)
Good Sources of Tryptophan
It is time we ruled out turkey as a good source of tryptophan. As Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, LDN points out, turkey doesn’t have any more tryptophan than other types of poultry. Pretty much any good source of protein is going to have tryptophan – but that doesn’t mean the body can use the tryptophan from these protein sources.
For example, dairy products like milk have lots of tryptophan but they also contain lots of pro-inflammatory cytokines which will degrade tryptophan. Most animal-based proteins are loaded with saturated fat and lacking in fiber and vitamin C, which also makes it difficult for the body to use tryptophan for serotonin and melatonin production.
So, to the surprise of many, the best tryptophan foods are likely those found in plants. Unlike animal products, plants are rich in anti-inflammatory healthy fats, fiber, antioxidants and also often contain the tryptophan cofactors. Here are some of the best tryptophan foods which will have health benefits beyond just boosting your mood and helping you sleep.
(Turkey is included as a basis of comparison)
Source of Tryptophan
Tryptophan (per 100gram serving)
|Turkey, young hen||340mg|
|Sesame seeds or tahini||390mg|
Spirulina and chia seeds also happen to be rich in numerous other nutrients, so you might want to consider adding these superfoods to your diet regardless of whether you think you need tryptophan. You can find them on Amazon for considerably less than what they probably cost in your local health food store. I like Starwest Botanicals Organic Spirulina Powder (1lb bulk bag) and Nutiva Organic Chia Seeds.
A tryptophan supplement isn’t going to compensate for poor lifestyle, like your junk-food diet, lack of exercise, or the fact that you spend the 3 hours before sleep on the couch watching a marathon of Game of Thrones. But, if you really think you need an extra boost of serotonin and help falling asleep, then tryptophan supplements might be an option.
Note that there was a tryptophan supplement scare in the late 80s/early 90s when the supplement was linked to the disease eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome, and subsequently all tryptophan supplements were recalled by the FDA. It was later found that the disease was not caused by tryptophan itself, but because the supplements had been contaminated. Today, contamination errors have been corrected and tryptophan supplements are considered safe, though pregnant and breastfeeding women should still consult with their doctors before taking tryptophan.
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