As an essential amino acid, tryptophan is crucial for staying alive and in good health. Because it cannot be produced by the body, it must be supplied through diet. Why is it important to have tryptophan in our diet? Because it is the building block of proteins, crucial for protein synthesis, meaning it helps create new proteins. In their turn, proteins are involved in enzymatic reactions, cell signaling and help build muscle tissue and organs. In addition to this, tryptophan is essential for serotonin synthesis.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that basically increases feelings of self-worth and happiness and tryptophan plays a pivotal part in the process of serotonin production. Tryptophan is a precursor of a neurotransmitter called serotonin and a precursor of vitamin B3 (niacin). The best food sources of tryptophan are milk and dairy products, red meat, poultry, eggs, chocolate, bananas, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and peanuts. It is also available as a food supplement.
Tryptophan is of crucial importance to mental health. It is a precursor of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, sleep and appetite. Serotonin is responsible for positive feelings such as happiness, cheerfulness, calm, confidence, dynamism, serenity, vivacity etc. A good intake of tryptophan leads to good levels of serotonin which, in turn, generates happiness and positive feelings, a healthy appetite and contributes to restful sleep. Low tryptophan levels cause low serotonin levels which can lead to experiencing negative feelings and having a tendency to feel anxious or depressed.
It has been theorized that insufficient dietary tryptophan causing too little serotonin to be synthesized by the nervous system can encourage the onset of anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders or depression. Symptoms such as sleeplessness or disturbed sleep, feelings of sadness that persist for weeks or months, ongoing anxiety, fatigue, reduced productivity and a low quality of life may appear as a result of low serotonin levels.
The role of tryptophan in regulating mood, sleep and appetite is further supported by the fact it is converted into the hormone melatonin (which is different from melanin, the skin pigment). The main function of melatonin is to regulate every aspect of our biological clock: the circadian rhythms. Melatonin thus determines when we go to sleep, when we wake up, how well we sleep, regulates heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and a variety of cellular and metabolic processes, including immunity-related processes. For example, your heart rate and blood pressure are supposed to be different when you’re awake compared to when you are meant to be sleeping.
Not enough tryptophan means not enough melatonin will be produced to correctly regulate the rhythms by which our body functions and regulates itself. This can easily result in disturbances in sleeping cycles, insufficient rest, reduced productivity, but also frustration as a result of such disturbances. All of these factors negatively impact mood, sleeping patterns and appetite and potentially encourage mental disorders.
A significant lack of tryptophan can further impact good health by disrupting basic cell processes and entire systems. For example, the circadian rhythms governed by the hormone melatonin (produced from tryptophan) affect the immune function. Research shows certain types of white blood cells (called T cells) are transferred to the lymph nodes during sleep to ensure an optimal distribution and ideal protection against infection and disease. Moreover, inflammatory cytokines are released during certain phases of sleep with the purpose of aiding immunological memory (when the immune system creates memory cells to be more efficient when fighting certain pathogens). Disturbances in sleep patterns can thus result in poor immunity.
In addition to favoring mental health and good disposition, regulating sleep and contributing to good immunity, tryptophan is also essential for the synthesis of vitamin B3 (niacin). Vitamin B3 is vital for good health. Meeting our demands offers a certain degree of protection against cardiovascular disease and prevents pellagra (a disease that causes skin lesions and dermatitis, hair loss, inflammation, confusion, nerve damage, muscle weakness, including cardiac muscle enlargement and weakness, dementia and ultimately death). The nutrient is important for healthy skin and hair, brain and nervous system health and strong muscles. Tryptophan deficiency is one of the leading causes of niacin deficiency.
What are the benefits?
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, which means our body cannot produce it, but we still need to get it to stay alive and be healthy. The most notable 10 properties and benefits of tryptophan include:
- Is vital for the synthesis of proteins, one of three major macronutrients.
- Helps synthesize the neurotransmitter serotonin.
- Improves mood and exerts a beneficial action on anxiety, depression and other mental disorders.
- Is required for synthesizing the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin.
- Helps manage and treat insomnia.
- Strengthens immunity.
- Regulates appetite.
- Helps combat fatigue.
- Helps produce vitamin B3.
- Indirectly contributes to skin, hair, muscle, brain and nervous system health.
Food sources and supplementation
The best dietary sources of the amino acid include high-protein foods such as: eggs, fish (salmon, cod), chicken, turkey, beef, cheese, milk, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, grains (oats, rice, quinoa), potatoes, bananas etc. Considering the variety of food sources of the amino-acid, it is fairly easy to meet our daily demands from diet alone.
Tryptophan dietary supplements are also available and recommended primarily for insomnia or mental disorders. However, it is best to consult a doctor if you are looking to treat or manage an existing health problems with the help of tryptophan supplements. Exceeding recommended doses can lead to side effects such as nausea, lightheadedness, sleepiness, headaches, vision problems, diarrhea (serotonin also works on the digestive system), nausea and others.