One of the things often overlooked when people are trying to improve their overall health, have more energy, lose weight and sleep better is the importance of obtaining enough amino acids from different protein foods. Amino acids, including tryptophan, are the “building blocks of proteins,” and without a wide enough array of them in our diets, we actually can’t even survive, let alone thrive.
We must get all the essential amino acids (like tryptophan, histidine, leucine and lysine, for example) through our diets since we can’t create on them on our own, but even other nonessential amino acids have many critical roles in the body. Essential amino acids help the body produce the kinds that are nonessential, and together they’re important for building and repairing muscle tissue, helping with neurotransmitter functions, supplying the brain with enough energy, and balancing blood sugar levels, for example.
Of these amino acids, tryptophan plays an important role. So what is tryptophan, and why do we need it? That’s what we’re about to find out.
What Is Tryptophan?
Tryptophan (also called L-tryprophan) is an essential amino acid that acts like a natural mood regulator, since it has the ability to help the body produce and balance certain hormones naturally. Supplementing with tryptophan-rich foods or taking supplements helps bring on natural calming effects, induces sleep, fights anxiety and can also help burn more body fat. Tryptophan has also been found to stimulate the release of growth hormones and even reduce food cravings for carbohydrates and help kick a sugar addiction in some cases.
An important byproduct of tryptophan is 5HTP (5-hyrdoxytryptophan), which works in the brain and central nervous system to boost feelings of well-being, connection and safety. It does this by increasing production of one of the body’s main feel-good hormones, serotonin. (1) Serotonin is the same calming chemical released when we eat certain comfort foods like carbohydrates, which is why supplementing with tryptophan has been shown to help control appetite and contribute to easier weight loss or maintenance.
How tryptophan, 5HTP and serotonin work:
Serotonin works by transmitting signals between nerve cells and altering brain functions that affect mood states and sleep. (2) In fact, supplementing with 5HTP (made from tryptophan) has been shown to lower depression symptoms as well as many prescription medications can.
Amino acid therapy is somewhat of an emerging field, which is based on the fact that certain amino acids have been found to be very helpful with treating conditions like sleep disorders, depression, fatigue, anxiety and sexual dysfunctions. Amino acids in general are a nutritional requirement for everyone: children, adults, vegetarians, omnivores and everyone in between. The best part about using targeted amino acids to help resolve health conditions and ease symptoms is that they’re completely natural, require no prescription and the vast majority of the time cause no side effects whatsoever.
Because of its ability to boost serotonin levels, 5HTP synthesized from tryptophan, and consuming more L-tryptophan itself, has been used to help treat numerous disorders, including:
- sleep disorders
- mood disorders like depression and anxiety
- migraines and tension headaches
- binge eating disorder
- learning disabilities like ADHD
- PMS and menopausal symptoms
- and more
1. Helps Improve Sleep Quality
There’s evidence that tryptophan has natural sedative effects that can help you sleep better, and as a result it can help improve overall health. A lack of sleep is a risk factor for problems like depression, decline in motor coordination, reduced concentration and memory, muscle aches, weight gain, and more. Tryptophan offers a natural remedy for getting better sleep and reducing problems associated with sleep apnea or insomnia, all without the need for sleep-inducing prescriptions that can cause many unwanted side effects. (3)
The strongest benefits for treating sleep disorders with L-tryptophan have been found when using supplements, rather than just food sources of tryptophan alone. Supplements have been found to help decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, improve mood the day next following better sleep quality, decrease teeth grinding during sleep (called bruxism) and decrease sleep apnea episodes during sleep (periodically stopping breathing throughout the night).
2. Lifts Your Mood and Reduces Depression and Anxiety
Not only can tryptophan help you sleep more soundly, but it’s also been shown to be a natural mood lifter and offer protection against depression, anxiety and the numerous negative symptoms associated with high stress levels (like irritable bowel syndrome and heart disease, for example). Many studies have found that L-tryptophan converts to calming serotonin in the brain and helps make other essential amino acids more available, which in turn helps control someone’s moods and turn down production of stress hormones.
Some studies have even shown that tryptophan and 5HTP supplementation can work as well as prescription antidepressants. Preliminary studies indicate that 5HTP is beneficial for treating people with mild to moderate depression just as well as medications like fluvoxamine (Luvox). Among 63 participants in one study, 5HTP did just as well as those who received Luvox for lowering depressive symptoms. (4)
Some research has shown that reduced intakes of tryptophan can cause significant reductions in certain brain activities that promote happiness and that low serotonin levels are more common among people with anxiety and depression. Study results show that patients are often successful at lowering negative symptoms related to mood disorders, addictions or hormonal problems like PMS/PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) when taking six grams of L-tryptophan per day. This amount taken for several months has been shown to decrease mood swings, restlessness, tension and irritability. (5)
3. Can Help with Recovery from Addictions
Supplementing with a combination of calming, anxiety-reducing amino acids and herbs — such as L-tryptophan, St. John’s wort and 5HTP — has been shown to help people overcome addictions by increasing serotonin and melatonin production. L-tryptophan is often given to people trying to quit smoking in order to improve the effectiveness of conventional treatment programs that teach people to control impulses and their emotional states better. (6)
4. Reduces Headaches and Migraines
Studies have found that tryptophan depletion worsens pain associated with tension headaches and migraines, plus can cause aggravated nausea and sleep problems experienced by many migraine sufferers. Increased brain synthesis of serotonin seems to offer natural relief for headaches and migraine symptoms, including sensitivity to light, indigestion, pain and more.
One study conducted by the Murdoch University School of Psychology in Australia found that five to eight hours after consuming a drink with a complete array of 19 different amino acids, including tryptophan, symptoms of migraines were significantly reduced. (7)
5. Can Help You Maintain a Healthy Weight
Tryptophan supplements can be used to help someone stick to a healthy diet and work toward the goal of losing weight. Increased serotonin levels promote calmness, clarity of mind, control over cravings or impulses, and even better metabolic functioning, which all boost weight loss.
L-tryptophan is needed for the synthesis of niacin (vitamin B3) through its role as a provitamin, and niacin is important for the conversion of macronutrients in our diets (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) into useable energy that supports the metabolism. Niacin/vitamin B3 is also crucial for cognitive functions, including the synthesis of important neurotransmitters and enzymes that control our appetite.
Another interesting benefit is that tryptophan helps improve physical performance and fights fatigue, which means it can keep you motivated to improve your fitness levels and regularly get enough exercise. It’s been used by competitive athletes for many years since it’s known to improve training results, lower performance anxiety and help people stay motivated to reach their goals.
Tryptophan vs. Melatonin
L-tryptophan is amino acid that plays a part in the synthesis of both serotonin and melatonin, two hormones highly involved in our natural sleep cycle and ability to control our stress response. Melatonin supplements are often taken to help people fall asleep more easily, feel calmer in general and wake up more rested, but they aren’t recommended for long-term use because this can interfere with how we much melatonin we wind up producing on our own. Long-term use of melatonin beyond about two to three months can also become habit-forming, hinder normal metabolic functions and interfere with reproductive hormone levels. (8)
L-tryptophan supplementation can help you get a good night’s sleep and maintain higher energy levels during the day just like melatonin supplementation can, because it keeps the level of serotonin produced fairly constant during the day and then also facilitates with the production of melatonin at night. In other words, it improves our bodies’ natural ability to allow us to get tired at the right time of night, drift off and get the sleep we need.
Compared to melatonin, L-tryptophan has other important roles beyond inducing sleep, including supporting the immune system, since it acts as a precursor to chemicals called kynurenines that help regulate immune responses and inflammation. When needed, L-tryptophan can also be converted in the body to niacin (also called vitamin B3), a type of essential B vitamin that helps support the metabolism, circulation, a healthy central nervous system and the production of enzymes needed for digestive functioning. (9) Since a lack of sleep can also mean a lack of weight loss, tryptophan has benefits for people looking to lose weight too.
How Much Do You Need?
There can be large differences in the actual needs of individuals when it comes to daily tryptophan intake. That’s because factors like someone’s age, weight/body composition, level of activity and digestive/intestinal health all affect how much is absorbed and used. In general, if you simply get amino acids from foods rather than supplements, you aren’t at risk for consuming too much tryptophan, although supplements can raise this risk.
Research suggests that most healthy adults consume around 3.5–6 milligrams of L-tryptophan per kilogram of body weight through their diets most days. Dieting, being chronically stressed, consuming too little calories, exercising a lot, and having any form of inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders or liver damage can all lead to less tryptophan being absorbed and therefore a possible deficiency. If you eat enough calories in general, vary your intake of protein and plant foods, and aren’t dealing with an intestinal disorder, chances are you’re acquiring enough. However, you might benefit from consuming more if you notice signs of moodiness, irritability, fatigue and trouble sleeping well.
According to the University of Michigan Health Department, the dosages below are general guidelines for supplementing with tryptophan based on your goals: (10)
- for sleep disorders/insomnia: 1–2 grams taken at bedtime
- for chronic pain or migraines: 2–4 grams per day in divided doses
- for treating PMS or PMDD: 2–4 grams daily
- for helping to alleviate depression or anxiety: 2–6 grams daily (it’s best to work with a doctor)
- for lowering appetite and cravings: 0.5–2 grams daily
A benefit of consuming tryptophan from natural food sources is that this can help with absorption and also offer other benefits, such as providing other essential amino acids and healthy fats. Research shows that your diet can play a major role in helping you synthesize enough serotonin and controlling your moods, sleep and stress response.
Doctors now recommend that the best way to obtain tryptophan from your diet and take advantage of its benefits is to vary the sources of proteins and carbohydrates you eat, since this allows for the most serotonin to be produced overall. (11)
Whole food sources of amino acids like tryptophan can raise serotonin production and also provide needed calories (energy) that prevent fatigue, low blood sugar levels, cravings and other problems (especially if the meal contains both carbs and proteins).
One way to make sure you get enough tryptophan and other amino acids in your diet is to aim for having about 20–30 grams of protein with each meal, varying the types of high protein-foods or snacks you eat since different types offer different levels of amino acids. Both plant and animal foods provide tryptophan, but in general animal foods are a more concentrated and complete sources of all amino acids/proteins you need.
For the best results and strongest calming effects, combine the protein foods below with a small serving of unrefined carbohydrates (like potatoes, veggies, beans or even fruit) in order to help tryptophan cross the blood-brain barrier, where it can boost serotonin levels.
Some of the foods that provide the most tryptophan and therefore help raise 5HTP/serotonin levels include: (12)
- cage-free eggs (especially the whites)
- wild-caught fish like cod and salmon
- pasture-raised poultry (including turkey, which is well-known for inducing sound sleep after a big Thanksgiving meal!)
- organic, ideally raw dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, cottage cheese or raw cheeses
- sesame seeds, cashews and walnuts
- grass-fed beef or lamb
- 100 percent whole grain oats, brown rice, corn or quinoa
- beans/legumes, including chickpeas and green peas
Risks and Side Effects
Some research suggests that consuming purified tryptophan through supplements might be a better way to increase serotonin levels compared to eating tryptophan-rich foods, due to how the body’s amino acid transport system works.
Complete protein sources, meaning those that contain all essential and nonessential amino acids, provide tryptophan along with many other essential amino acids, which all compete with one another to cross the blood-brain barrier at the same time. Because many protein foods cause tryptophan to have a lot of competition when it comes to selection and uptake in the brain, these foods don’t always raise blood plasma levels of serotonin as much as we might hope for.
For people struggling with mood disorders, insomnia or addictions, supplementing with 5HTP can be a good way to directly increase serotonin. Low doses should be taken at first, and you should look for out side effects, including nausea, diarrhea, drowsiness, lightheadedness, headache or dry mouth.
Tryptophan or 5HTP taken as supplements also have the potential to cause serotonin syndrome when combined with sedatives or antidepressants (such as MAOI or SSRI class drugs) so if you take any mood-altering prescriptions, don’t take tryptophan without first talking to your doctor. Supplements also shouldn’t be taken by pregnant women, women who are breast-feeding, or anyone with active kidney or liver disease since this can cause complications.
- Tryptophan (also called L-tryprophan) is an essential amino acid that acts like a natural mood regulator, since it has the ability to help the body produce and balance certain hormones naturally. Supplementing with tryptophan-rich foods or taking supplements helps bring on natural calming effects, induces sleep, fights anxiety and can also help burn more body fat.
- Because of its ability to boost serotonin levels, 5HTP synthesized from tryptophan, and consuming more L-tryptophan itself, has been used to help treat numerous disorders, including sleep disorders, mood disorders, headaches, binge eating, learning disabilities, PMS and menopausal symptoms, fibromyalgia, and more.
- It also helps improve sleep quality, lifts your mood, reduces depression and anxiety, can help with recovery from addictions, reduces headaches and migraines, and can help you maintain a healthy weight.
- Some of the best tryptophan foods include cage-free eggs, spirulina, wild-caught fish, pasture-raised poultry, raw dairy, sesame seeds, cashews, walnuts, grass-fed beef or lamb, whole grain oats, brown rice, corn, quinoa, beans/legumes, potatoes, and bananas.