An exploration of sleep and insomnia, with a single destination in mind:
a good night's sleep.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Talking Turkey About Tryptophan

by Bill Adler

According to the online magazine Life Extension, "The two main biomolecules that are involved in the production of normal sleep—the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin—are both naturally made from tryptophan in the body. That makes tryptophan a tremendously valuable supplement for those whose sleep is lacking in either quantity or quality."

Life Extension isn't alone in extolling the benefits of tryptophan for sleep. The University of Maryland Medical Center reports, "Medical research indicates that taking 1 g L-tryptophan before bedtime can induce sleepiness and delay wake times. Researchers think L-tryptophan brings on sleep by raising levels of serotonin, a body chemical that promotes relaxation."

(There's a very important asterisk for anyone thinking about taking tryptophan supplements, the University of Maryland Medical Center also points out: "Consumers should take this supplement with caution as it may adversely interact with certain antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and others, and cause serious negative side effects. Serotonin Syndrome, for example, can be fatal.")

Photo by Allen. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Now, to turkey. As everyone knows, a full turkey dinner makes you sleepy. It's the tryptophan in the turkey! But it's not. Somehow America's national gastro-economic rumor mill got filled with this idea, like a turkey stuffed on Thanksgiving. But in fact, turkey has no more tryptophan in it that any other poultry or meat product. Consuming tryptophan, an amino acid, along with other amino acids, of which there are plenty in turkey, diminishes tryptophan's effectiveness.

Turkey also has less tryptophan per serving that many nuts do.

For tryptophan to help you sleep, you need to take it alone, as a supplement, and not around the same time that you're ingesting protein-rich foods. The supplement, L-tryptophan was banned in the United States in 1991 after some 37 people consumed contaminated L-tryptophan and died from eosinophilia myalgia syndrome. The US Food and Drug Administration allowed the sale of L-tryptophan again in 2002.

So why do you get sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner? Maybe it's all that wine. Or because your Uncle Wally keeps telling the same story about how when he was a kid and baseball games were different.

Enjoy your turkey. Just don't count on it to put you to sleep.

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