Published: 09/11/2014 - Updated: 03/08/2020
Author: Dra. Loredana Lunadei, PhD
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, and one of the 20 amino acids included in our genetic code. It is classified as essential because the body cannot produce it on its own, and must be consumed in foods. It is one of the most important amino acids because it fulfills basic bodily functions, like those mentioned bellow:
- It is indispensable for promoting the release and synthesis of serotonin (an important neurotransmitter involved in regulating sleep. It helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle). Serotonin is involved in relaxation, enjoyment, and pleasure. Studies have shown that serotonin concentrations in the brain are directly proportional to tryptophan concentrations in plasma and the brain.
- Involved in the nervous system functioning. Today, tryptophan is the most studies nutrient in the psychiatric community.
- It is fundamental for good emotional balance, helps regulate anxiety, insomnia, and stress. Since it helps synthesize serotonin, in some cases it can also have antidepressant effects.
- It is especially involved in growth and hormone production, especially in the functioning of adrenal secreting glands
- It is essential for the body to create its own proteins.
- It is a very useful amino acid in weight loss diets; when combined with lysine and arginine, it is responsible for releasing growth hormones, with tryptophan as the most potent of all of them. This growth hormone helps synthesize and eliminate fats that accumulate in the body.
- Helps control insulin levels.
- Helps in the formation of vitamin B3 (Niacin). In fact, from every 60 mg of dietary tryptophan, our body creates 1 mg of Niacin.
- A new use of tryptophan has begun, in the reduction of certain pains like headaches, toothaches, and those associated with cancer.
- Helps treat cases of epilepsy, paranoia, psychosis, some cases of aggressive behavior, etc.
Where can this amino acid be found?
Tryptophan is not a very common amino acid in food. It is unusually distributed in foods, and is not always present in the same concentrations. Also, the majority of dietary proteins lack it. There are dietary supplements that contain this important amino acid, however, you can obtain it naturally through foods that contain it, such as the following foods:
- Whole grains: corn, barley, wheat, etc.
- Dairy, cheese, yogurts
- Fish and meat
- Legumes, like soy (tamari, tofu, etc.)
- Dried fruit, especially almonds
- Fruit, especially bananas, apples, pineapple, avocado
This supplement could be helpful for some people, but if you buy the supplement, keep in mind any doctor’s advice if you are currently taking other medications or tranquilizers.
How to better use this amino acid?
To properly metabolize Tryptophan, the body must have appropriate levels of vitamin B6 and Magnesium.
Vegetarian diets and Tryptophan
Those that follow vegetarian or vegan diets (no eggs, meats, nor dairy products), should be careful to consume permissible foods that contain tryptophan. These people are at a higher risk of being deficient of this important amino acid.
What could lower tryptophan levels, and what consequences would that bring?
- Vegetarian diets, fulminant hepatitis, stress, anorexia, bulemia, age, and poor diets could decrease the presence of this amino acid. Also, people with pyroluria, who have zinc or vitamin B6 deficiencies, frequently experiences the consequences of low tryptophan levels.
- Low tryptophan levels could cause, as a consequence, depression, anxiety, tension, phobias, hormonal anomalies, etc. Anomalies in the tryptophan link have been identified in depressive or suicidal people.
Tryptophan and depression
Currently, depression is one of the most pressing conditions around. Antidepressants are meant to prolong the life of serotonin, dopamine, etc., which are pleasure hormones. In small doses, tryptophan can help keep these hormone productions healthy. 3 grams of tryptophan are required to obtain significant antidepressant results, and to raise plasma levels of tryptophan. This is where we should note the importance of a balance diet, without too many irritants and stimulating foods, like alcohol, coffee, sugar, excessive medications, etc. They can lower this amino acid’s levels. Try to include the aforementioned foods, as well as those that contain magnesium and vitamin B6.
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