Some doubt that the amino acid tryptophan in Thanksgiving turkey and other foods can actually spur sleep, improve the mood, and help with other medical conditions. The official word, however, is that it does help by triggering the production of the chemical hydroxytryptophan in the body, which is then made into the neurotransmitter serotonin. Especially for those with serotonin deficiencies, taking tryptophan supplements may be successful at curbing the appetite, improving the mood, and getting them to sleep.
Tryptophan is one of 11 essential amino acids that the body does not produce naturally, needing a balanced diet to provide enough. In concert the essential and approximately 10 nonessential amino acids are the so-called building blocks that grow and heal the muscles, organs and other protein-synthesized cells. The other essential proteins besides tryptophan are tyrosine, selenocysteine, valine, histidine, threonine, phenylalanine, lysine, leucine, isoleucine and methionine.
By improving the body's serotonin production, particularly when deficiencies are noted, tryptophan supplements could have a slew of medical benefits. In addition to promoting sleep, lessening anxiety and depression, and potentially making people feel fuller, tryptophan supplements also have been used as a homeopathic remedy for lessening the pain and swelling of fibromyalgia, quelling headaches, and even easing hot flashes. Studies back up tryptophan on all of these counts, with debate merely over how much benefit is derived.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), a harmful toxin known as Peak X was found in some tryptophan supplements in 1989. This chemical led some to develop a multi-symptomatic and potentially fatal eosinophilic myalgia syndrome. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned raw, often-animal-procured tryptophan shortly thereafter.
The tryptophan supplements ban in the United States led manufactures to pursue a plant-born alternative called 5-hydroxytryptophan, which is what the body turns food-derived tryptophan into serotonin. Though some Peak X has been found in the 5-HTP supplements too over the past few decades, according to the UMMC, it appears in much lesser concentrations that typically do not create any symptoms. To benefit from the hydroxytryptophan supplements, a 200 to 400 mg daily dosage is recommended at night, but no more. This slow progression could take two or three months for symptoms to improve.
Many believe that turkey is the best natural source of tryptophan. Though it is among the highest of the meats, several other dietary sources are higher or similar in concentration. Many species of fish like Atlantic cod and perch have similar levels to turkey, as do prime cuts of pork, caribou and beef. Other foods scoring high are eggs, flour, dairy, white rice, potatoes, bananas, nuts, and soybeans as well as sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds.