If you’re like most of our clients, you might not know what tryptophan is and why it’s so important. Tryptophan is one of of the nine essential amino acids. An amino acid is named “essential” when we need them to survive, but our bodies can’t make them. We have to get them from foods or supplements.
We’ve talked before about important nutrients our body can’t produce (see Tip # 73 where we talked about glutathione, and Tip #74, on homocysteine). We also discussed healthy ways to get the nine essential amino acids from food in our post on the importance of getting the right kinds of animal protein (see Tip #17).
What does tryptophan do?
So now that we know that tryptophan is one of the essential amino acids, let’s talk about what it actually does for the body.
Tryptophan is needed for the production and maintenance of the body’s proteins, muscles, enzymes and neurotransmitters. In addition, the body uses tryptophan to help make melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle, and serotonin helps regulate appetite, sleep, mood, and pain.
The body also converts some of the tryptophan to nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD. You might have heard of NAD, as it is getting a lot of attention these days. NAD can, directly and indirectly, influence many key cellular functions, including metabolic pathways, DNA repair, and immune cell function. These cellular processes and functions are critical for maintaining tissue and metabolic homeostasis, which affects our cells’ ability to produce and use energy. They are also key to healthy aging. I think that’s why NAD is getting so much press lately.
I was one of those people who hadn’t heard of tryptophan until we started doing the hair analysis. I knew about amino acids, but I didn’t know there were 9 essential amino acids that I had to get from food. So many things made sense to me once I learned about amino acids and the role they play in building protein, muscles and energy production.
You see, one of the regimens I did in an effort to get rid of my recurring bladder cancer was that I became a vegan. I was juicing several times a day and only eating vegetables that were cooked in a soup or steamed or baked. It was a lot of work and required 100% commitment.
At first I felt amazing. But looking back, I’m pretty sure that’s because I removed all sugar, dairy, and gluten from my diet. But after a while I became weak and had low energy. I thought these were side effects from the cancer. But in actuality, I wasn’t getting sufficient levels of essential amino acids from my food. And I didn’t know enough about them to supplement.
This meant I was losing muscle, and thus I lost energy. When I finally realized that this diet regimen was actually feeding my cancer, not killing it, I started eating animal protein again. It was amazing! I couldn’t believe how much better I felt. My energy came right back, and I started putting muscle back on.
I’m not dissing those who choose a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. If that works for you, that’s great. But, we’ve found that it’s important for our vegan and vegetarian clients to supplement the nine essential amino acids, because there are only a few foods they’re eating that have them. Foods like beans, nuts, seeds, soy, tofu, and some grains. Most of them aren’t eating enough of those foods to get the amino acids they really need. It’s particularly difficult to get all nine if you’re not eating animal protein.
The health benefits of the right amount of tryptophan
Now that we hopefully have a better understanding of why tryptophan is so important for our health, let’s discuss some of the specific benefits of getting the right amount of it in our diet.
Benefit #1: Improved sleep
As many of you know, here at More Than Healthy, we feel like sleep is the foundation to our health. Whenever we learn of anything that may improve sleep, we fully research it. Having the right amount of tryptophan helps improve sleep.
We know that tryptophan helps produce melatonin, so it makes sense that getting the right amount of it, especially if you’re low, would improve your sleep.
In two different studies, researchers fed participants breakfasts that were high in tryptophan. In both studies, participants’ sleep scores improved. Additionally, they had increased sleep efficiency, increased actual sleep time, and increased immobile time (no wiggles while sleeping).
Participants also experienced decreased total nocturnal activity, decreased sleep fragmentation index (percentage of restless sleep), and decreased sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep). Those are all great stats to help improve your health by getting better quality and quantity of sleep.
Benefit #2: Improved energy
The next benefit goes hand-in-hand with the previous benefit. The right amount of tryptophan can help improve energy levels.
The liver uses tryptophan to produce niacin (vitamin B3), which is needed for energy metabolism and DNA production. This works well as long as you have enough iron, riboflavin, and vitamin B6. So if you’re getting better sleep from the serotonin and the melatonin that tryptophan produces, and you have more B3 thanks to the tryptophan as well, it makes sense that you would have more energy.
This is something I experienced first-hand. Carla still talks about how bad my energy levels were after I’d been on a vegan diet for about six months. The sad thing was that since we didn’t understand what was really happening, I stayed on that diet for another year before we decided I needed to try something different.
That was when I discovered that it wasn’t the animal protein that was causing my inflammation and digestive problems. It was the gluten, sugar, and dairy. So all I did was add animal protein back into my diet. I stopped juicing my fruits and vegetables, because I learned that I needed the fiber that was in them. I continued to stay away from gluten, dairy, and sugar like I had for the previous 18 months.
That was when my health dramatically improved. Not only did I get my energy back, but my pain, which had mostly been caused by inflammation, went away. Every area of my health started to improve.
It really makes for quite a story, and not only do I believe it saved my life, it completely improved the quality of my life as well. There are several chapters about this in our book, Unlocking the Leaky Gut Code, if you want to learn more about it.
Benefit #3: Improved memory and cognition
Another benefit of the right amount of tryptophan is improved memory and cognition. As someone who has always feared declining cognitively as I age, I’m all about anything that improves that.
One study followed the connection between cognition, depression, and tryptophan levels. Researchers had 16 healthy volunteers with a family history of depression and 11 healthy volunteers with no family history. Each was given 100g of an amino acid mixture with or without tryptophan.
Results confirmed that tryptophan depletion specifically impaired long-term memory performance in all subjects, despite their family history. Low tryptophan levels also delayed recall performance, and recognition sensitivity and recognition reaction times were significantly impaired.
Studies consistently find that when tryptophan levels are low, long-term memory performance worsens.
Tryptophan and mood-related issues
One study exposed 15 healthy adults to stressful environments, once with normal tryptophan blood levels, and another when they had low levels. Results showed that anxiety, tension, and feelings of nervousness were higher when participants had low tryptophan levels. Researchers concluded that low levels of tryptophan may contribute to anxiety.
This also explains why tryptophan affects memory and cognition. The conversion of tryptophan to serotonin is responsible for many of the studied effects on both mood and cognition. I also know that sleep deprivation plays a role in these conditions, too. They all go hand-in-hand.
Too much tryptophan
We always caution clients about supplementing unless they know they’re low. Tryptophan is no different. Too much tryptophan can cause a whole slew of frightening side effects. Some of these include:
- Blurred vision
- Head twitching
- Loss of muscle coordination
- Muscle stiffness
- Heart palpitations
- …and even a condition called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) which, if not caught early enough, can cause death.
Getting the right amount of tryptophan through food
Just as we encourage with every vitamin and mineral, the best way to get your tryptophan is through food.
The foods that have the highest amount are animal proteins like beef, chicken, turkey, cheese, eggs, milk, and fish (especially canned tuna).
Good plant sources include nuts, seeds, oats, chocolate, bananas, apples, prunes, and whole wheat bread. We don’t recommend getting it from bread though; we think the adverse health effects simply aren’t worth it.
Here’s a breakdown of some popular foods considered to be good sources of tryptophan:
|Amount of tryptophan
|Whole milk, 1 quart
|2% milk, 1 quart
|Canned tuna, 1 ounce
|Turkey, light meat, 1 pound
|Turkey, dark meat, 1 pound
|Chicken, light meat, 1 pound
|Chicken, dark meat, 1 pound
|Prepared oatmeal, 1 cup
|Cheddar cheese, 1 ounce
|Peanuts, 1 ounce
|Whole wheat bread, 1 slice
|White bread, 1 slice
|Chocolate, 1 ounce
|Banana, 1 medium
|Apple, 1 medium
If you can’t get it from the foods you eat, then we recommend you supplement with Kion Aminos. Using this product has all of our essential amino acids at sufficiency now.
The right amount of tryptophan and hair analysis
Hair analysis will show you if you’re low in tryptophan so you can add more of those foods to your diet if needed. With just a few strands of your hair, you receive a full report looking at toxins, nutrients, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, electromagnetic frequency exposure, chemicals, radiation, parasites, immune factors, and foods you should avoid.
As always, we enjoy hearing from you. Don’t hesitate to reach out! You can find us on our social media pages on Facebook or Instagram (@morethanhealthyliving). We try to respond to all questions. We’d love to become your health coaches as you work to become “more than healthy” and achieve optimal health.
Thanks for joining us, and we’ll see you next week.
Note: Remember, we’re not doctors. We’re just sharing what’s worked for us on our health journey. You will want to consult your doctor before significantly changing your diet and supplementation.