The Truth About Tryptophan, According to Science
Thanksgiving is a time for giving thanks, being with family, and, ultimately, enduring a major food coma after a turkey binge. Tryptophan is often credited with inducing the lethargic state that follows turkey day’s feast, but is the amino acid really to blame? We thought it was time to investigate.
So, what exactly is tryptophan? According to WebMD, L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid that the body cannot make on its own. In case you forgot your elementary biology, amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Our body uses tryptophan to make niacin, “a B vitamin that is important for digestion, skin and nerves, and serotonin.” Serotonin, a brain chemical, is a natural upper. Elizabeth Somer, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness, discuss how serotonin helps to create a feeling of well-being and relaxation: “When levels of serotonin are high, you’re in a better mood, sleep better, and have a higher pain tolerance.” Perhaps that’s why we’re jovial during Thanksgiving weekend.
Is tryptophan really the culprit for Thanksgiving sleepiness? No. According to Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., L.D.N., an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman, it’s your overeating—not your turkey—that causes extreme fatigue on Thanksgiving... Well, overeating, and the fact that alcohol is most often involved. In fact, chicken has more tryptophan than turkey. Do you get really tired after eating chicken? Probably not.
Is there such a thing as eating too much tryptophan? Eating a lot of tryptophan means that you’re eating a lot of protein, which, according to Somer, “is the only ingredient we get too much of.” Protein overload causes a buildup of amino acids waiting to get into the brain. Essentially, tryptophan, a bulky amino acid, would have to stand in line, along with all of our other ingested amino acids, to get through the blood-brain barrier. Somer breaks this process down in a Harry Potter analogy anyone can understand: Tryptophan waiting to get through the blood-brain barrier “would be like standing in line when the Harry Potter movie comes out and you didn’t get in line early enough. The chances of getting in to see the movie are pretty slim. That’s what happens when you eat protein-rich food. Tryptophan has to compete with all these other amino acids. It waits in line to get through the blood-brain barrier and very little of it makes it across.”
So how can we get the most out of tryptophan? In order to get all of the mood-boosting, sound-sleeping benefits of tryptophan, you need a VIP ticket to cross the blood-brain barrier in a hurry. This ticket is a small, all-carbohydrate snack like a Fig Newton. “It’s the all-carb snack that ends up being like a sneak preview of the Harry Potter movie,” says Somer. So the next time you’re feeling a bit restless before bed, have a little snack, like half a whole-wheat bagel drizzled with honey, and you’ll sleep like a baby.
To read more on the truth about tryptophan, visit WebMD.
Increase your nutritional knowledge with a selection of our favorite books below.
Are you experiencing a food coma right about now? Tell us how you get over turkey day fatigue in the comments.