Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tripping Out on Tryptophan

Truth and fiction about tryptophan, poultry, and how it affects you 

If you’ve heard the word tryptophan, it was probably around Thanksgiving or Christmas conversations – times when many Americans go hog-wild for turkey. The context is usually around the common post-feast sleepiness. You may be surprised to find that many things you thought were true about tryptophan could be wrong. Here are some facts and tips about tryptophan that are not only useful to your health knowledge but will also be great information you can share as conversation starters at holiday gatherings.

What is tryptophan?

Tryptophan is one of many essential amino acids. For most of us, that begs the question, what is an amino acid? Amino acid is a compound that combines to form proteins. Amino acids and proteins together are considered the building blocks of life.  

Important stuff, right? Indeed: Infants require tryptophan for normal, healthy growth.  Adults benefit from its nitrogen balancing properties.

Even more important to note is the term essential amino acid. Essential means that it is a type of amino acid that our body does not produce by itself. The only way we get it is from our diets.  

Does tryptophan cause sleepiness and fatigue?

Does tryptophan cause sleepiness?
Sort of yes, and sort of no. The body uses tryptophan to produce serotonin, which our bodies use to make melatonin – a hormone that aides in the regulation of your sleep and awake cycles. What this means is that turkey is capable of affecting a state of relaxation and restfulness, but no more so than any other protein food.  

But does it cause sleepiness? Not necessarily. The sleepiness you feel after gorging yourself on a massive holiday feast is more likely the result of "feast-induced drowsiness" – the result of consuming any heavy meal that is rich in carbohydrate. 

When we gorge ourselves, our bodies rightly focus on digestion to deal with the overload, which focuses blood into the digestive organs. So the inclination to snooze after eating a large feast is our body’s way of shutting down bodily processes so that it can focus its attention on digestion. 

What does tryptophan do then?

The amino acid tryptophan helps you regulate your sleep and wake cycles, and can elevate your mood.  Many people have found that increasing their intake of tryptophan has helped reduce problems with anxiety, impulsiveness, problems with concentration, weight gain, carbohydrate cravings, and depression. 

Any tryptophan downsides? If you are eating foods that contain tryptophan, no. It was once believed that tryptophan could have some dangerous sideeffects, based on some early studies. As a result, tryptophan was removed from the supplementation market. However, no subsequent studies have shown any negative side effects from eating too much turkey. So there is no such thing as tripping out on tryptophan! Have as much as you want.

Turkey is the best source of tryptophan, right?

Actually, no. Turkey is one source of tryptophan – a good one – but it is not the only source and not even the food with the most of it. 

You can boost your tryptophan level by consuming foods with protein; nearly all foods with protein naturally contain some tryptophan, although often in small amounts relative to the other essential amino acids

Particularly good sources of tryptophan include:
amino acids
Turkey is a good source of tryptophan,
but there are other sources too!
  • Chicken
  • Legumes
  • Red meats
  • Cheese
  • Nuts
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Dairy products
  • Tuna
  • Shellfish
  • Soybeans
  • Tofu
  • And, yes: turkey
But should you want a serious boost of tryptophan, start with the top item on the above list:  chicken. In the average serving of chicken, you get nearly 130 percent of the daily recommended intake of tryptophan; that's about 11 percentage points more tryptophan per serving than you will find in turkeyTurkey provides 118.7 percent of the daily recommended intake of tryptophan. Therefore, it is certainly correct to say that turkey is a good tryptophan source too, as is any poultry food. But start with chicken to really “beef up” on this essential amino acid. 

Learn more about tryptophan sources and side effects

If this article has whetted your appetite for more information on tryptophan, and how you can benefit from it, check out these resources:
Now that you know the positive benefits of tryptophan, why not put some more of it in your diet? To help you get started, click here for a selection of recipes for turkey. Or to keep that tryptophan coming, check out these turkey leftovers recipes

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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