Tryptophan is one of the ten essential amino acids that the body uses to synthesize necessary proteins. It is well known for its role in the production of nervous system messengers, especially those related to recreation, relaxation and sleep.
Functions of tryptophan
- Prevents deficiency of niacin. A minority of tryptophan that dietary intake (about 3%) is converted into niacin (vitamin B3) in the liver. This conversion can help prevent symptoms associated with niacin deficiency when dietary intake of this vitamin is low.
- Increasing levels of serotonin. Tryptophan serves as a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps the body regulate appetite, sleep and moods. Because of its ability to increase levels of serotonin, tryptophan is used therapeutically in the treatment of many conditions, especially insomnia, depression and anxiety.
Deficiency of tryptophan
As an essential amino acid tryptophan nutritional deficiency can cause symptoms characteristic of protein deficiency, namely weight loss and impaired growth in children.
When accompanied by a nutritional deficiency of niacin, the lack of tryptophan in the diet can also cause pellagra - a disease that is characterized by dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia and death.
Tryptophan deficiency can lead to lower levels of serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, anxiety, irritability, impatience, impulsiveness, inability to concentrate, weight gain, insatiable appetite for carbohydrates and insomnia.
In 1989, in the U.S., use of food supplements containing tryptophan became associated with the development of a serious condition called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), which causes severe muscle and joint pain, fever, weakness, swelling of your hands and feet and shortness of breath, and in some cases leads to death.
Vitamin B6 is necessary for the conversion of tryptophan to niacin and serotonin. Therefore, dietary deficiency of vitamin B6 can lead to lower levels of serotonin and / or problematic conversion of tryptophan to niacin.
Some types of food, health factors and lifestyles in general decrease the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. These factors are namely smoking, high intake of sugar, alcohol abuse, excessive consumption of protein, hypoglycemia and diabetes.
People taking antidepressant drugs (including Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft) should consult a physician before taking any supplement or medication that also result in increased levels of serotonin and action in the body.
Tryptophan may play an important role in the prevention and/or treatment of the following conditions: anxiety, depression, headaches, insomnia, nightmares, obesity, pain, premenstrual syndrome, senile dementia, Tourette's syndrome.
Sources of tryptophan
Tryptophan is contained naturally in almost all foods that contain protein, but in smaller quantities than other essential amino acids. Foods that contain tryptophan are: red meat, dairy products, nuts, seeds, bananas, soybeans and soy products, tuna, shellfish, and turkey meat.