Tryptophan: Treating Depression and Insomnia

The nutrient tryptophan is an essential amino acid well known for its ability to affect the levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Tryptophan is important in helping your body create vitamin B-3 and the hormone melatonin. This amino acid and its byproducts play an important role in regulating mood, sleep cycles, and the perception of pain.

Tryptophan is the direct precursor, or starting material, of serotonin. Your tryptophan intake affects the amount of active serotonin your brain makes. Serotonin levels affect your mood, your ability to sleep well, and your food cravings.

Tryptophan is currently available only by prescription. In the past, companies sold tryptophan products contaminated with a toxic compound that caused severe illness in some people. Today, tryptophan is checked more closely, and supplements are safe.

The key uses of tryptophan include:

  • Many people use tryptophan effectively to treat insomnia. Tryptophan also increases melatonin levels in your blood by up to four times the normal amount, and melatonin supplements are also popular sleep aids.

  • Tryptophan is prescribed as an antidepressant, and is particularly effective in relieving manic depression and depression associated with menopause.

  • Tryptophan appears to increase pain thresholds.

  • This amino may help treat anorexia by enhancing appetite.

Good dietary sources of tryptophan are turkey and milk. It is readily available in flesh foods, eggs, dairy products, and some nuts and seeds, while relatively low in corn and other cereal grains. Vegetarian sources include nutritional yeast, soy products, almonds, and spirulina — an algae high in protein.

Proper tryptophan metabolism requires vitamin B-6, vitamin C, folic acid, and magnesium. If you are taking tryptophan, remember to add these nutrients to your program. Researchers say it is especially important to take B-6 with tryptophan to reduce the possibility of the buildup of toxic by-products in your system.

For tryptophan to be effective, it must cross into your brain. Tryptophan must also compete with many other amino acids to be absorbed. To enhance blood levels of tryptophan, and increase the conversion rate to serotonin, take your tryptophan with a carbohydrate meal.

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