You're not alone if tryptophan immediately makes you think of the dreaded or delightful "food coma" that often follows a Thanksgiving meal. But, what you may not know is tryptophan is one of the eight essential amino acids -- which your body cannot make on its own -- that your body needs to thrive and survive. Many tasty sources beyond turkey offer the health benefits of tryptophan, including fruit, meat, grains, peanuts, dairy products, and chocolate.
You may know melatonin is often used as a sleep-inducing supplement. Tryptophan cuts out the middleman by producing melatonin in the pineal gland as well as in the stomach, retina, and the millions of immune cells coursing through the body. The longer it takes you to fall asleep, the healthier the sleep. The downside is that it takes longer to revive yourself upon waking; melatonin cobwebs take a bit longer to clear. However, many people with insomnia are happy with the trade-off if it means a healthy sleep.
Insomnia and many other conditions can lead to depression. A diet high in tryptophan seems to increase positive mood and lower anxiety. However, for some people with depression, tryptophan is converted to kynurenine rather than serotonin, worsening symptoms. The jury is still out on this benefit of tryptophan.
Malnourishment is not a good thing, but overeating is also detrimental. Poor diet and overeating lead to countless health problems. Outside of smoking, your diet is the biggest source of potential health problems later in life, raising your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and other issues. Studies show people who eat high-tryptophan diets eat fewer carbohydrates and have less desire to snack between meals.
During the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, the body can produce less serotonin and instead increase kynurenine production by as much as 40%. For women struggling with premenstrual dysphoria, a severe type of PMS, L-tryptophan supplements have helped address symptoms such as irritability, moods swings, and anxiety.
Studies support the theory that tryptophan supplementation and high-tryptophan diets can reduce anxiety. Additionally, the amino acid can reduce anxiety associated with smoking cessation, and limit the weight gain that accompanies many people's efforts to quit.
Some studies show L-tryptophan supplements can treat mania when used in conjunction with antipsychotic medication. Additionally, the amino acid outperformed some antidepressants in a study of people being treated for depression. In numerous cases, those that were then taken off the tryptophan showed a return to stronger mania symptoms.
While far from a performance-enhancing drug, tryptophan supplements can increase the body's production of beta-endorphins, neurotransmitters that fight pain. Another study showed athletes given L-tryptophan supplements increased their exercise time by nearly 50%.
L-Tryptophan, as a precursor to serotonin, is invested in the cognitive process. Serotonin plays a large role in cognition, including staving off Alzheimer's disease and depression. In particular, it seems to have a positive effect on women who have participated in studies. As yet, doctors have not worked out tryptophan's role in the complex cognitive relationship that involves more than just serotonin.
Two studies indicate women given tryptophan supplements have increased levels of prolactin, a critical element in the production of breast milk following childbirth. Additionally, children given a tryptophan supplement may have increased production of growth hormones that significantly affect early growth in newborns.
While tryptophan supplements don't necessarily improve memory, a tryptophan deficiency can adversely affect it. Long-term tryptophan-deficient diets lead to memory issues, specifically in the areas of recognition tests and word recall. These symptoms appear in tryptophan-deficient women more often than men. There are many benefits to maintaining recommended tryptophan levels, and numerous detriments can arise when levels fall too low.
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