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Tryptophan in Turkey - Does It Really Make You Tired?

 Around Thanksgiving, tryptophan becomes a hot subject, as many people know that there is plenty of it in turkey meat. The most common association with tryptophan is that it makes you tired and sleepy. However, in reality, feeling tired after eating a heavy meal is not caused by tryptophan, nutrition experts say. That said, tryptophan does do quite a lot for our bodies, and it's a very important nutrient overall. Learn what tryptophan is and what it isn't in this article.

What Is Tryptophan?

Tryptophan thanksgiving dinner
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, and our body cannot produce it on its own so it’s important for everyone to consume it daily. There are 9 such amino acids, and all of them serve as building blocks for different cells in the body. Tryptophan, in particular, helps the body generate 3 key compounds, namely:
  • Serotonin: the brain uses tryptophan to make serotonin, the so-called happy hormone, which plays a crucial role in controlling a person’s mood, sleep, and digestion.
  • Melatonin: another hormone produced in the brain using tryptophan is melatonin, which regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle.
  • Niacin: Lastly, tryptophan is used by the liver to create vitamin B3 (niacin), which maintains our metabolism and helps the nervous system and the skin stay healthy.
There are two main forms of tryptophan: L-tryptophan, which is more easily broken down by the body, and D-tryptophan, which takes a bit longer to digest. Many common foods contain tryptophan, but contrary to popular belief, turkey isn’t the richest source of this nutrient. In fact, cheese, pumpkin seeds, and chicken all have more tryptophan than turkey. In the image below, we’ve listed some common sources of tryptophan for your convenience.
Tryptophan foods rich in tryptophan

Does Tryptophan Really Make You Sleepy?

If you’ve been blaming your sleepiness and tiredness after a heavy meal on tryptophan, we must point out that it’s a complete myth. The reality behind sleepiness right after a heavy meal is a lot more prosaic - it simply takes a lot of energy for your body to digest excessive amounts of food, and so you become tired and need a nap.

While tryptophan has nothing to do with drowsiness after a Thanksgiving dinner, though, it can help promote healthy sleep. As we’ve explained earlier, tryptophan plays a key role in the production of melatonin and serotonin. Both of these hormones play a crucial role in our sleep-wake cycles, but it takes quite a lot of time - about 5 hours - to produce these hormones. Therefore, it might be better to eat tryptophan-rich foods or take supplements that contain a lot of tryptophan between the morning and the afternoon if you’re taking them to improve your sleep.

Related Article: 5 Foods to Help You Sleep at Night

Other Health Benefits and Potential Risks of Tryptophan

Since tryptophan is an essential amino acid, we really don't have a choice whether to eat it or not, as we simply must consume it to stay healthy. Still, you might find it useful to know that tryptophan can help you with more than just your sleep. Having plenty of this nutrient in your diet will also protect and potentially even help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, boost your emotional well-being, and could even potentially increase your pain tolerance. Surely, this is yet more fascinating proof of how our diet can have a beneficial effect on our psychological and physical health.
Tryptophan sleep

All these benefits may make you wonder: "Should I start taking a tryptophan supplement to maximize the beneficial effects?" Doctors say that we should be careful, as we still don't know how excessive amounts of the nutrient may affect our body. In addition, tryptophan supplementation has been known to interfere with certain medications that treat depression, pain relievers, and migraine medications.

Finally, the National Organization for Rare Disorders had a report about tryptophan supplements likely causing 1,500 cases of a rare disorder called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) that lead to 37 deaths in the late 1980s. EMS is a rapidly-evolving and mysterious condition that targets multiple organs in the body, such as the lungs, skin, and muscles that could be fatal. This is exactly why L-tryptophan supplements have been banned for a short time in the US, and to this day, most supplements contain D-tryptophan.

It needs to be pointed out, however, that consuming tryptophan through food has never been associated with any negative health consequences, so enjoy that Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie, no need to be afraid. In fact, nutrition experts maintain that getting your tryptophan through food is the best choice!

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