Would You Like Some Gravy with Your Tryptophan?

November 2011 Prof. Scarlet Leslie

With the holiday season approaching, let's take a minute to digest our favorite nutrient of this time of year - tryptophan!

Tryptophan is one of the 20 standard amino acids, but one of four aromatic amino acids. (FYI: The ring makes it aromatic.) Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning humans cannot make it from other building blocks. Yes, that includes you, my magical friend. Tryptophan must be taken into the body from food (or supplements).

Turkey is instantly associated with tryptophan. In reality, all proteins have about the same tryptophan content as turkey. That includes pork, beef, and chicken. Eggs are the best source of tryptophan. Soybeans, pumpkin seeds, and Parmesan cheese all have higher tryptophan content than turkey. There's even tryptophan in chocolate!

So, what's the beef with tryptophan? It makes you happy! Tryptophan is converted into serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is known to contribute largely to happiness. Other functions of serotonin include mood regulation and sleep. I won't go into all those now; I don't want to put YOU to sleep.

Speaking of sleep, tryptophan is blamed for making you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner. Why? The hearty portion of tryptophan that you consume makes it way into the brain and changes to serotonin, making you happy. Yay! However, when there is excess serotonin in the brain, some of it converts to melatonin. Melatonin causes drowsiness if it is in the brain and you begin to feel sleepy.

Is tryptophan the real culprit? Part of the problem is the large amount of carbohydrates you also eat throughout your meal. You know: stuffing, cornbread, pies, cranberry sauce, etc. Carbohydrates trigger the release of insulin. Insulin's main function is the regulation of sugar intake. Insulin also helps transport neutral amino acids from your digestive system into the blood. Notice that insulin only transports neutral amino acids. Tryptophan is NOT a neutral amino acid, so it does NOT get transported into the blood. All the tryptophan must go somewhere, so more tryptophan crosses into your brain!

Now, I don't want you to change your eating habits for the holidays. Feel free to indulge! Enjoy that tryptophan-induced extended food coma!