One of the most critical factors people overlook when losing weight, getting better sleep, having more energy and improving their overall health is the importance of getting sufficient amino acids from various protein foods. Amino acids such as tryptophan are the “building blocks of proteins,” and the human body cannot survive much less thrive without a wide enough array of them in our diets.
Essential amino acids (like tryptophan, lysine, leucine, and histidine, for example), as well as non-essential amino acids, have crucial roles in the body. For that reason, we must get all of them through our diets, as the human body cannot create them on its own. Essential amino acids help the body produce non-essential amino acids, and together they help with neurotransmitter functions, building and repairing muscle tissue, balancing blood sugar levels and supplying the brain with enough energy, for example.
Of these amino acids, tryptophan has a critical role to play. So, what is tryptophan, and why do we need it?
What Is Tryptophan?
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that has the ability to help the body produce as well as balance certain hormones naturally. It, therefore, acts as a natural mood regulator. Taking tryptophan supplements or supplementing your diet with tryptophan-rich foods helps to induce sleep, bring on a natural calming effect, burn more body fat and fight anxiety. Tryptophan has also been shown to reduce cravings for carbohydrates, stimulate the release of growth hormones, and in some cases even help to kick a sugar addiction.
5HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), is a byproduct of tryptophan, which works in the central nervous system and brain to boost feelings of connection, safety and overall wellbeing. It works by increasing the production of serotonin (also called the happy hormone). Serotonin is also produced when you eat certain comfort foods such as carbohydrates, which explains why including tryptophan-rich foods in your diet can help to ease weight loss or maintain and control your appetite.
How Tryptophan, Serotonin, And 5HTP Work:
Serotonin transmits signals between nerve cells thus altering brain functions that affect sleep and mood states. Supplementing with 5HTP has been shown to be as effective as prescription medications at lowering the symptoms of depression.
Generally, amino acids are a nutritional requirement for everyone from children and adults to omnivores and vegetarians. This has led to the emergence of Amino Acid Therapy, which is based on the fact that certain amino acids can be very helpful in treating conditions such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, sexual dysfunctions, and sleep disorders. And the good thing about using targeted amino acids to treat health conditions and relieve symptoms is that they require no prescription, they’re natural and rarely cause any side effects.
Because consuming tryptophan itself and 5HTP synthesized from tryptophan helps to boost serotonin levels, tryptophan has been used to treat various disorders such as:
- Binge eating disorder
- Sleep disorders
- Tension headaches and migraines
- Menopausal symptoms and PMS
- Mood disorders like anxiety and depression
- Learning disabilities like ADHD
5 Tryptophan Benefits
Evidence indicates that tryptophan can help improve your overall health as it acts as a natural sedative that can help you sleep better. Lack of sleep is a significant risk factor for problems such as reduced memory and concentration, muscle aches, depression, weight gain, a decline in motor coordination, and more. Tryptophan, therefore, acts as a natural solution to getting better sleep and reducing problems associated with insomnia and sleep apnea, without the numerous unwanted side effects that typically come with sleep inducing medication.
Some of the most significant benefits of treating sleep disorders with L- tryptophan have been found when using supplements rather than just tryptophan on its own. Supplements have been found to improve mood then next day following better sleep, decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, decrease sleep apnea episodes and decrease the grinding of teeth during sleep (also referred to as bruxism).
In addition to helping you sleep better, tryptophan has been shown to offer protection against anxiety, depression and other symptoms associated with high-stress levels by acting as a natural mood lifter. Numerous studies have found that L- tryptophan helps make other essential amino acids available and converts to calming serotonin in the brain, which in turn helps to turn down the production of stress hormones and regulates your moods.
Some studies indicate that 5HTP and tryptophan supplementation can work as well as prescription antidepressants. Preliminary studies have indicated that 5HTP helps to treat people with mild to moderate depression just as well as medications such as fluvoxamine (Luvox). Among 63 participants in a study, those who received Luvox for lowering symptoms of depression got the same results from taking 5HTP.
Some research findings indicate that low serotonin levels are more common in people with depression and anxiety and that reduced tryptophan intakes can result in a significant reduction in certain activities in the brain that promote happiness. Study results indicate that patients are often more successful at lowering addictions, hormonal problems like PMS/PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) or negative symptoms related to mood disorders when taking six grams of L- tryptophan per day. Taking this amount for several months has been shown to decrease restlessness, irritability, tension and mood swings.
Supplementing with a combination of anxiety-reducing and calming herbs and amino acids – such as St. John’s wort, L- tryptophan, and 5HTP – has been shown to help people overcome addictions by increasing the production of melatonin and serotonin. L- tryptophan is often given to people who are trying to quit smoking so as to improve the effectiveness of conventional treatment programs aimed at teaching them how to control their emotional states and impulses better.
Studies have indicated that the depletion of tryptophan can cause sleep problems and aggravated nausea experienced by migraine sufferers, and worsens pain linked with migraines and tension headaches. Increased synthesis of serotonin in the brain seems to offer natural relief for migraine and headache symptoms, including indigestion, pain, sensitivity to light and more.
A recent study conducted in Australia’s Murdoch University School of Psychology found that migraine symptoms were significantly reduced five to eight hours after consuming a drink with a complete array of amino acids, including tryptophan.
Tryptophan supplements can be used to help someone work toward their weight loss goals and stick to a healthy diet. Increased serotonin levels promote a clear mind, calmness, better metabolic functioning, and control over cravings and impulses, all of which help to boost weight loss.
L- tryptophan is needed for the synthesis of vitamin B3 (niacin) through its role as a provitamin, and niacin is crucial for the conversion of macronutrients in our diets (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates) into usable energy that supports the metabolism. Vitamin B3 is also important for cognitive functions, including the synthesis of important enzymes and neurotransmitters that control our appetite.
Another crucial benefit of tryptophan is that it helps to fight fatigue and improve physical performance, which means it can help you to get enough exercise and keep your psyche levels up to improve your fitness levels. Competitive athletes have leveraged the benefits of tryptophan for many years since it’s known to lower performance anxiety, improve training results and help people stay motivated to work toward their goals.
Tryptophan vs. Melatonin: Which Helps with Sleep More?
L-tryptophan is an amino acid that plays a part in the synthesis of both melatonin and serotonin, two hormones which have critical roles to play in our ability to control our stress response and natural sleep cycle. People often take melatonin supplements to feel calmer in general, fall asleep more easily and wake up feeling more rested, but they’re not recommended for long term use because that can interfere with how much melatonin the body is able to produce on its own. Using melatonin over extended periods beyond about two to three months can also be habit-forming, interfere with reproductive hormone levels and hinder metabolic functions.
Just like melatonin supplementation, using L- tryptophan supplements can help you get a good night’s sleep and maintain higher energy levels during the day. This is because it facilitates the production of melatonin at night and keeps the level of serotonin produced during the day fairly constant. Simply put, L- tryptophan improves your body’s natural ability to allow itself to get tired at the right time of night, drift off and get much-needed sleep.
Compared to melatonin, L- tryptophan has several crucial roles beyond inducing sleep. For instance, it supports the immune system by acting as a precursor to chemicals that help to regulate inflammation and immune response. When needed by the body, L- tryptophan can also be converted to niacin, which helps to support metabolism, circulation and the production of digestive enzymes. Since lack of enough sleep can also lead to excessive weight gain, tryptophan has benefits for people looking to lose weight too.
How Much Tryptophan Do You Need?
Since our bodies are different, the actual needs of individuals can vary widely when it comes to daily tryptophan intake. That’s primarily because factors such as age, level of activity, digestive/intestinal health and weight/body composition all determine how much is absorbed and used. Generally, getting amino acids primarily from foods instead of supplements raises the risk of consuming too much L-tryptophan, although supplements can also raise the risk.
According to research findings, most healthy adults, for most days, consume about 3.5-6mgs of L- tryptophan per kg of body weight through their diets. Exercising a lot, dieting, chronic stress, and having liver damage or any form of inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders can lead to less tryptophan being absorbed and therefore a possible deficiency. If you vary your intake of plant foods and protein, aren’t dealing with an intestinal disorder and eat enough calories in general, then the chances are you’re getting enough tryptophan. However, you might benefit from consuming more if you notice signs of irritability, moodiness, trouble sleeping well and fatigue.
Below are general guidelines for supplementing with tryptophan based on your goals (According to the University of Michigan Health Department)
- Migraines or chronic pain: 2-4 grams per day in divided doses
- Insomnia/sleep disorders: 1-2 grams taken at bedtime
- Helping to alleviate anxiety or depression: 2-6 grams daily (it’s advisable to work with a physician)
- Treating PMDD or PMS: 2-4 grams daily
- Lowering appetite and cravings: 0.5-2 grams daily
Top Tryptophan Foods
One of the major benefits of consuming tryptophan from natural foods is that, in addition to absorption, it will also help with other benefits such as providing healthy fats and other essential amino acids. Research posits that the foods you eat can play a significant role in helping you to control your sleep, moods and stress response.
Doctors recommend varying the sources of proteins and carbohydrates you eat as the best way to obtain tryptophan from your diet since it allows for the most serotonin to be produced overall.
Whole food sources of amino acids like tryptophan will not only raise serotonin production but also provide needed calories to prevent low blood sugar levels, fatigue, cravings and other problems (especially if the meal contains both proteins and carbs).
One way to ensure you get sufficient tryptophan and other amino acids in your diet is to vary the types of snacks and high-protein foods with each meal and aiming for about 20-30 grams of protein with each meal. Both animal and plant foods provide tryptophan, but animal foods are more concentrated and complete sources of all amino acids/proteins you need.
For optimum results and the strongest calming effects, combine the proteins foods below with a small serving of unrefined carbohydrates (such as potatoes, beans, veggies or fruit). The idea is to help tryptophan pass the blood-brain barrier, where it can boost serotonin levels.
Some of the foods to consider include:
- Cage-free eggs (especially whites)
- Grass-fed lamb or beef
- 100% whole grain oats, quinoa, brown rice or corn
- Beans/legumes, including green peas and chickpeas
- Cashews, walnuts and sesame seeds
- Organic, ideally raw dairy products, such as raw cheeses or cottage cheese, yogurt, milk
Tryptophan Supplements and Side effects
Some studies suggest that, due to how the body’s amino acid transport system works, consuming tryptophan supplements might be more effective at increasing serotonin levels compared to eating tryptophan-rich foods.
Complete sources of protein (those containing all amino acids- both essential and nonessential) provide tryptophan, as well as other essential amino acids, which all compete against one another to cross the blood-brain barrier at the same time. Because many protein foods compete with tryptophan when it comes to selection and uptake in the brain, these foods don’t necessarily raise the blood plasma levels of serotonin as much as expected.
Supplementing with 5HTP can be a great way for people struggling with insomnia, mood disorders or addiction to directly increase serotonin levels. However, it’s advisable to start with low doses and look out for potential side effects such as drowsiness, diarrhea, nausea, dry mouth, headache or lightheadedness.
When combined with antidepressants or sedatives, Tryptophan or 5HTP supplements have the potential to cause serotonin syndrome. So, if you’re taking any mood-altering medication, be sure to speak to your physician before taking tryptophan. Pregnant and breastfeeding women or anyone with active liver or kidney disease shouldn’t take tryptophan supplements as they can cause complications.
Tryptophan (also called L- tryptophan) is an essential amino acid that acts as a natural mood regulator. This is due to its ability to help in the natural production and balancing of certain hormones. Taking supplements or supplementing your diet with tryptophan-rich foods helps induce sleep, bring on natural calming effects, burn more body fat and also fight anxiety.
Because it can boost serotonin levels, consuming more tryptophan, and 5HTP synthesized from tryptophan, it has been used to help treat various disorders ranging from sleep disorders and headaches to learning disabilities, fibromyalgia, binge eating. It also helps with PMS and menopausal symptoms, and more.
It also helps with recovery from addictions, improving sleep quality, reduces anxiety and depression, maintaining a healthy weight, lifts your mood and can help to reduce headaches and migraines.
Some of the best food sources of tryptophan include spirulina, sesame seeds, cage-free eggs, pasture-raised poultry, wild-caught fish, walnuts, cashews, grass-fed beef or lamb, potatoes, quinoa, beans/legumes, corn, brown rice, bananas, and raw dairy.