What’s the Deal with Tryptophan?

November 25, 2021 by
Photo Credit: Claudio Schwarz

Tryptophan is probably the most famous amino acid. Not because it is the most important, although it is important, but because it’s the one that most people have heard of. Even folks who don’t know what amino acids are probably know what tryptophan is. Or at least what some of its rumored effects are.

A common assertion is that heavy consumption of turkey results in extreme tiredness due to the high levels of tryptophan contained in turkey. And many people do find themselves drowsy, sleepy, and ready to curl up on the couch and watch football after a thanksgiving meal. Maybe you experienced this yesterday.

The reality of what’s going on is a bit more complicated.

Tryptophan does promote good mood and sleep, specifically by its conversion to 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) which is a precursor to serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin and 5-HTP affect many processes in the body and influence sleep, cognition, and mood. Once serotonin has been produced by tryptophan, it can be converted into melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that most people are probably familiar with, because of its ease of availability as an OTC supplement, and it plays a massive role in our sleep-wake cycles.

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