What is L-Tryptophan?
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that comes in two orientations: L-Tryptophan and D-Tryptophan, differing in their molecular orientation.
Humans need this chemical for a variety of reasons, including producing serotonin, an important mood-stabilizing hormone. It is considered "essential" because it is not naturally produced by our bodies — we have to ingest animals and plants that produce it, then absorb it to help our organs function properly.
Foods that Contain Tryptophan
It is a common belief that turkey contains high levels of tryptophan. You might have heard this before: family members are warned about eating too much turkey on Thanksgiving to avoid feeling groggy. However, turkey does not contain more tryptophan than other meats. Many high-protein foods contain just as much tryptophan naturally.
Here is a list of foods you may already eat that contain this compound:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Tofu and soy
Tryptophan is easily taken by people of all dietary backgrounds and restrictions since tofu and soy have high levels. In addition to food, there are other ways to incorporate tryptophan into your daily diet. They are offered as a powder supplement, as a capsule or gummy form, and have potential benefits for mitigating stress and sleep issues.
Certain supplements can offer a combination of tryptophan's calming properties and other herbs, such as lemon balm, to further amplify its wellness effects.
In addition, some foods are fortified with this amino acid, namely cereals and infant food. Genetic engineering is not a new concept and was developed as a solution to help nutrient-deficient diets globally. Corn, rice, and soybean plants are among the many crops engineered to answer this need.
Some global populations that are nutrient-deficient greatly benefit from having fortified foods that help supplement their depleted tryptophan levels. Lowered levels have been shown to correlate with many health issues.
Health Benefits and Common Uses of Tryptophan
This compound has a reputation for inducing sleep, which has led to it being used to help sleep issues. However, studies have yet to provide supporting evidence of these claims. However, it may help improve the quality of sleep, discomfort, and overall wellness.
L-tryptophan may have other potential health benefits for supporting various aspects of health. The presence of this amino acid may increase niacin, which, in turn, is needed to increase serotonin levels. Most notably, serotonin is needed to regulate mood - low levels of this precious hormone may be the culprit behind a multitude of mental disorders.
By taking l-tryptophan through an enriched diet, l-tryptophan supplements have the potential to support your overall wellness.
Multiple studies have analyzed its effect on the following mental symptoms:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Panic attacks
- General loss of interest in hobbies
- Irritability, agitation, and moodiness
These mental symptoms can be indicative of various health issues. In a study done on 71 PMDD patients, 37 patients were given 6 g supplement and 34 were given a placebo. The supplement group self-reported 34.5% reduction in adverse mental symptoms, such as restlessness and irritability, while the placebo-treated group reported only a 10% reduction.
Other Potential Health Benefits
Many studies have encouraged further research to be done on this essential amino acid.
Some health issues show the tendency to break down tryptophan in the body, lowering levels needed to properly function. These findings, it can help direct future research towards the development of strategic treatments, diverting breakdown away from this amino acid to a compound with less health risk.
To avoid these potentially dangerous health consequences, supplementing diet with tryptophan supplements may help promote overall wellness.
- Blood Circulation: maintaining proper tryptophan levels is also important to prevent anemia. Anemia is when the body lacks enough healthy red blood cells to carry out key bodily functions like oxygen flow — without proper oxygen levels, dizziness, pale skin and shortened breath might occur. All of these issues should be prevented for optimal heart health as well.
- Sleep: multiple studies have been done to investigate tryptophan's effects on sleep quality. In two studies, adult participants were given a daily tryptophan-enriched diet for breakfast and dinner in varying amounts to account for control. The groups given the more enriched diets reported increased sleep time and sleep efficiency.
- Immune System Boost: Tryptophan can also possibly boost the immune system's infection-fighting capabilities, including reducing discomfort associated with health issues.
- Mood: If you deal with mood swings or pms, L-tryptophan can help reduce and balance mood fluctuation.
Possible Side Effects and Risks
During the 1980's, tryptophan supplements were linked to an EMS, eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome epidemic, with 1,500 reports and 37 deaths. This is a rare disorder and this particular outbreak was connected to tainted tryptophan supplies made by a single manufacturer. It was deemed more likely that the product was tainted rather than the amino acid being the culprit.
Consuming tryptophan naturally through food is typically safe. However, when taking a tryptophan supplement or tryptophan-fortified foods, it is important to consult with your doctor to make sure you are taking the right dose. Some individuals experience adverse side effects, and these can range from slightly annoying to serious.
Common side effects of tryptophan supplements include:
- Gastrointestinal issues: heartburn, stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Reduced libido or sexual pleasure
- Blurred vision
- Dry Mouth
In case of serious side effects, such as drowsiness and blurred vision, avoid operating heavy machinery, such as driving. Supplements are currently not recommended for people who are pregnant, trying, or breastfeeding.
If you experience side effects, you can call to report them by calling 1-800-FDA.
Taking Tryptophan with Other Medications
When taking tryptophan, consult your doctor if you are currently on medication. It may react and cause an adverse reaction, namely in SSRI's, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Serotonin is created by nerve cells and narrows your blood vessels which in time controls how much serotonin signals are transmitted to the brain, which controls your mood.
It is recommended that an individual should take around 8 to 12 grams of L-tryptophan this can be through food or through supplement form).
A few of these medications include citalopram, fluoxetine, and sertraline — each of these may be marketed under different brand names such as Celexa, Prozac, and Zoloft, respectively.
Taking this supplement while on certain medications may increase your serotonin levels and disrupt their efficacy. If you take any of the following medications, it is a great idea to consult your physician before taking a tryptophan supplement:
- Migraine medication
- Cough syrup with dextromethorphan
- MAO inhibitors
Tryptophan exists in many forms, both naturally occurring and in supplements, such as capsules or gummies. Over the years, many studies have investigated its effects on a multitude of health conditions and diseases, with encouraging results. Though further research continues to support tryptophan's potential health benefits, it can possibly improve quality of sleep, alleviate sad feelings and be a possible preventative treatment.
If you are worried about breast-feeding when you are pregnant, athletic performance, sexual problems, drug interactions involving L-tryptophan, consult with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before taking these supplements. It is also recommended to seek professional advice before giving tryptophan to children.
By taking precautions and reading supplement product labels and warnings, you can avoid taking something that isn't suited for your overall health needs.
Meet our Experts
This article has been reviewed by members of our Scientific Advisory Board.
Dr. Jay Cowin, Nutrition Expert
Founder of Functional U, a Nutrition, Performance & Optimal Health practice.