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Picture this: it’s been a long, exhausting day full of “to-do” list overdrive. Every human interaction feels more like a daytime TV show (gurl!) than real life. The commute is chock full of roadblocks and your rage escalates to critical levels.
You’re back at home feeling wiped. All you want to do is grab a container of your favorite carb loaded or sugar laden goody and turn your thoughts off.
These starchy snacks aren’t just comfort foods, they’re working on your brain chemistry, allowing the come down you crave.
Life doesn’t have to feel so crazy all the time. And you don’t need to pack on the pounds in order to relax. Treat yourself to the teachings of tryptophan and how it naturally benefits your sleep and mood.
What is Tryptophan?
Tryptophan is an amino acid (protein building block) required for normal human growth. It’s considered to be essential, meaning that your body can’t produce it on its own.
Amino Acids and Protein
Protein is a macronutrient, required in large amounts from your diet for optimal function. It builds your body structure and gorgeous form (muscle, skin, hair, nails, organs). It creates enzymes that regulate metabolism, hormones, neurotransmitters, immune antibodies, cell growth and repair.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein - think of them like Lego pieces. They link together to build complex arrangements. They are classified according to how your body can (or can’t) manufacture them:
Essential amino acids: your body can’t produce these on it’s own so you have to get them from food or supplements.
Conditionally essential amino acid: must be consumed as well but are only needed under specific circumstances such as when you’re stressed.
Non-essential amino acids: your body can produce these on it’s own or from other nutrients.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that takes on different forms according to its function. The “L” in front of the amino acid (such as with L-tryptophan) means that the amino acid is in its free form. This is because it’s not attached to other amino acids.
Amino acids have two configurations, similar to how humans are left and right handed:
“D” comes from the word “dexter” in Latin meaning right
“L” comes from the word “laevus” meaning left
You want to aim for “L-tryptophan” versions because it can be readily absorbed by your body. For the purpose of ease and recognition, we’ll call it, “tryptophan” for short.
Benefits of Tryptophan
Tryptophan is crucial for human life and is critical for a number of metabolic functions. Clinical studies link tryptophan to improved mood, behavior, and cognition. It may help treat psychiatric disorders, particularly when combined with other therapeutic agents. That’s one assiduous amino.
Your body also uses tryptophan to make niacin, melatonin, and serotonin.
Niacin is a B vitamin and antioxidant. It assists the digestive tract, skin, and nervous system. Tryptophan creates niacin by acting as a substrate (the material or substance on which an enzyme acts), but it’s a less efficient use of tryptophan - about 60mg needed for one milligram of niacin!
Melatonin is a hormone known to regulate sleep and circadian rhythm. It impacts your reproductive, gastrointestinal, and immune systems. It’s managed by both artificial light and sunlight, which is why you should turn off your devices and dim the lights before winding down for bed. Melatonin is produced in tryptophan and serotonin pathways.
Serotonin has a broad impact on your mind, mood, and tummy. It’s estimated that 95% of serotonin is found in your gastrointestinal tract with only 3% of dietary tryptophan used for serotonin synthesis. Since serotonin is one of the most important topics in research and mental health, take it when you can get it!
Tryptophan can’t be made by your body so it must be obtained by food (or supplements). Eating a healthy, balanced diet is essential for mental and physical wellbeing. Include these tryptophan rich foods to boost your serotonin and reap the energy, mood, and sleep benefits.
Turkey, chicken, and goose all lend a helping wing to tryptophan. Thanksgiving turkey grants tryptophan it’s famous role in making you sleepy after a big ol’ dinner. These leaner meats are also high in protein and lower in fat, an excellent addition for a wholesome diet. Give thanks to these healthy, tryptophan-rich birds.
The old wives tale of a warm glass of milk and honey before bed, may hold true. Having a dose of dairy gives you quickly absorbed tryptophan, aiding in sending you to sleep. Milk provides all three macronutrients and is a great source of B vitamins, vitamin A and E. It contains minerals, calcium and phosphorus, which are good for bone health.
Salmon is a brain food by many standards. It contains a good amount of tryptophan as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 helps strengthen bones, keeps skin healthy, and improves mood and brain function. Salmon is also high in vitamin D which boosts serotonin levels in the brain. Aim to eat fatty fish twice a week for body benefiting tryptophan, vitamin D and omega-3.
Eggs are known as the golden standard for protein because they have the highest biological value. This determines the percentage of essential amino acids per gram. Go for the whole egg rather than just the white to gift yourself natural vitamin D and choline, both important for brain function. And don’t stress, the cholesterol found in eggs has almost no effect on your blood cholesterol levels.
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds don’t contain as much tryptophan as fish, poultry, and eggs, but they’re a good option for you vegetarians and vegans out there. They’re an excellent source of protein and heart-healthy fats. Add them to oatmeal, salads, and smoothies for tryptophan topped treats.
Soy products are a valuable source of tryptophan, especially for you plant-based eaters. Aim for natural soy products such as edamame, organic tofu, or soy milk without added sugar and additives. Avoid soy products trying to be something they’re not like burgers, tofurkey, or cheeses, especially the ones with a long list of ingredients.
Tryptophan Support Crew
To get tryptophan working prime time, you gotta call on the support crew. By providing your body with the nutrients it needs to make these neurotransmitters, you’re setting it up to create healthy doses of serotonin, naturally.
A precursor is an inactive substance that becomes an active one. In this case, we’re talking about tryptophan. But tryptophan needs cofactors in order to change into serotonin. Cofactors ignite a reaction - consider them helper molecules that assists in transformation.
Here are some of the cofactors that support tryptophan in becoming serotonin:
Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide)
Niacin is a B vitamin that helps break down nutrients into energy. It helps maintain cells and is an essential part of metabolism. It improves circulation and can lower cholesterol. A deficiency has been linked to depression.
Food sources: meat, poultry, fish, cereals, beans, seeds, leafy green vegetables.
Relation to tryptophan: Part of the metabolizing process, helps form serotonin from tryptophan.
Magnesium (Magnesium glycinate)
Magnesium relates to mood, sleep, and stress. It has been shown to improve mood during stressful situations. It also support bone structure and promotes heart health.
Food sources: nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, whole wheat, leafy greens.
Relation to tryptophan: Aids in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin.
Zinc (Zinc glycinate)
Zinc is a critical factor in maintaining a healthy immune system. It’s essential for healthy brain function and has powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Aim for zinc glycinate when you supplement. This form is proven to be more bioavailable.
Food sources: meat, shellfish, beans, seeds, nuts, whole grains.
Relation to tryptophan: directly required for synthesis of tryptophan.
Give Tryptophan a Fighting Chance
All amino acids want make their way into your brain but some, like tryptophan, have to “fight for their right”.
Tyrosine (known for alertness, attention and focus) makes its way to your brain first. This is one of the reasons you may feel energized after a higher protein meal.
Tryptophan (known for zen and calm feelings) makes its way last. To get tryptophan to giddy up, you need glucose.
When you eat carbohydrates, insulin is increased (and used to break down carbs into glucose). Insulin also keeps tyrosine and other amino acids circulating in your blood. This gives tryptophan an opportunity to break through to your brain!
But don’t go downing bowls of pasta quite yet. Simple sugars, such as table sugar and refined carbs, can send your blood sugar (and neurotransmitters) on a roller coaster ride. Over time this can set you up for chronic diseases like diabetes and mental health concerns. Aim to have wholesome foods such as whole grain carbohydrates and try supplements that set you up for success.
How to Use Tryptophan Supplements
You’re different and perfect just the way you are. But this also means that your body may process and require different amounts of tryptophan to meet your individual needs.
The recommended daily allowance for tryptophan is estimated between 250mg/day and 425mg/day but this can change according to factors such as age, weight, activity, body composition, and metabolism.
As long as you have your doctor’s ok, are healthy, and are open to listening to your body, you can use these recommendations (based off of clinical studies) as a general guide:
Insomnia: 1 - 2 gm at bedtime
Pain: 2 - 4 gm per day
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS): 2 - 6 gm per day, second half of menstrual cycle
Food cravings: 0.5 - 2 grams per day
Depression: 3 - 6 grams per day*
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): 6 grams per day*
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): 2 - 4 grams per day*
*Please consult your physician if you believe you may be experiencing one of these conditions.
Tryptophan is likely safe at moderate doses. If you experience any of these general side effects: anorexia (lack of appetite), dizziness, dry mouth, nausea, headache, sexual dysfunction, always consult your physician.
If you’re taking anti-depressant medications, use extra caution because you may be at a higher risk of a serious condition called serotonin syndrome. If you experience any of these symptoms: high heart rate or blood pressure, diarrhea, headache, shivering, fever, seizures, confusion, contact your doctor or medical emergency system immediately.
Treat Yourself to Tryptophan
Tryptophan is a natural precursor that helps make serotonin, which helps support your mood, brain function, and sleep quality. It also helps create melatonin, a key player in a normalized sleep cycle.
Tryptophan is found in some protein containing foods but typically requires the assistance of carbohydrates and cofactor nutrients to adequately get absorbed. High quality supplements, are an ideal option as long as you consult your physician (especially if you’re taking anti-depressant medication).
Considering the plethora of scientifically-backed research and benefits you may want to give this essential amino acid a try, as your go-to for natural mood support.
Our Serotonin Brain Food is a Great Source for Tryptophan!