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Tryptophan: An Amino Acid that Helps You Fall Asleep

By Edited Feb 18, 2016 0 0

Fall Asleep Naturally

Tryptophan-Rich Foods Help You Fall Asleep Naturally

Why Do you Feel Sleepy After Eating Turkey?
Credit: rfduck's Photostream

Your diet plays an important role on your sleep and wakeful states. The quality of your sleep and wakefulness is also affected by your diet. With regards to falling asleep, the amino acid tryptophan offers a natural and nutritionally sound aid for quality sleep. Tryptophan is the precursor of serotonin, the primary neurotransmitter that induces sleep. It is also the precursor of melotonin, another sleep-inducing neuropeptide.


Tryptophan is an essential amino acid because your body can not produce it from other metabolites. Your body must obtain it from foods or supplements. Tryptophan is a neutral amino acid and it is the biggest amino acid in the body in terms of its molecular weight (204.32 g/mol) It is noted for its anti-depressant and anti-insomnia effects. Some of the important substances that are produced from tryptophan metabolism in your body include serotonin, melatonin and niacin (vitamin B3). Serotonin and melotonin are beneficial for inducing sleep. Vitamin B3 helps to elevate the level of your good cholesterol (HDL).

Tryptophan is a neutral amino acid, and it competes with other neutral amino acids for absorption from the small intestine. Therefore, it is poorly absorbed from  protein-rich diets (neutral amino acid-rich diets). Absorption of Typtophan is optimized if the ingested food has disproportionately higher concentration of tryptophan.

 Another reason for consuming foods that are disproportionately rich in tryptophan is that inclusion of amino acids and proteins from a variety of sources can introduce into the mix, amino acids like phenylalanine and tyrosine which are alertness-promoting amino acids. These latter amino acids can counter-act the sleep-inducing effects of tryptophan and melotonin.

rovides you a natural aid for falling asleep.  In the brain, tryptophan is the substrate for a chain reaction that produces serotonin, melatonin and numerous other neurochemicals. Serotonin and melotonin are the sleep-inducing neuropeptides. Some of the cofactors and metabolites that support the metabolism of tryptophan to produce serotonin and other neuropeptides are magnesium, vitamin B6 and folic acid.

Role of Insulin in the Tryptophan-Induced Sleep

Insulin facilitates tryptophan's entry into the brain. To reach its target site of action, the neurons of the brain, tryptophan must cross the blood-brain barrier. Blood-brain barrier is a net work of exchange vessels and cells that filters blood that goes to the brain. Blood brain barrier (BBB) may also be viewed as structurally modified capillary beds in the brain that are impermeable to many substances, particularly large molecules, viruses and bacteria . The BBB acts as a shield that protects the brain from toxic substances and microorganisms. Tryptophan goes through this blood brain barrier very poorly in the absence of insulin.

Other amino acids competitively prevent tryptophan from going through the BBB. They block the limited absorption sites in the BBB so tryptophan can not get through. These competitor amino acids are the neutral large amino acids (tyrosine, phenylalanine, and the branched chain amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine) . Insulin selectively facilitates the entry of these competitor amino acids into the muscles and other organs. This gives a competitive advantage to tryptophan at the BBB, so significant amounts of tryptophan can then enter the brain tissue.

You need an effective strategy for getting the consumed tryptophan into the brain tissue. Ideally you want to eat foods that have high concentrations of tryptophan and low levels of the amino acids that compete with tryptophan at the BBB. Since it is hard to find foods that have low concentrations of the competitor amino acids, a different strategy needs to be put in place, and this is where insulin comes into the picture.

You can consume tryptophan-rich foods such as turkey along with a carbohydrate such as mashed potato, pasta or rice. The consumed carbohydrate would stimulate insulin release from the pancreas and raise the plasma level of insulin. A breakdown product of the carbohydrate is glucose, the primary activator of insulin release from the pancreatic beta cells. It is more effective to induce insulin release with complex carbohydrates instead of glucose because this produces a more stable and sustained level of insulin.

Sources of Tryptophan

Turkey is a well-known source of tryptophan-rich proteins, but it is not the only source of this amino acid. Tryptophan is found in red meats, sea food nuts and some vegetables. Some tryptophan-rich foods are shown below. It should be noted, however, that the sleep-inducing effect of each food is not determined only by the concentration of tryptophan in the food. The other determinants include: the concentrations of the other neutral large amino acids in the food; your plasma level of insulin and insulin sensitivity.

  • Shrimp

  • Crimini mushroom

  • Turkey

  • Cod

  • Snapper

  • Halibut

  • Mustard green

  • Chicken

  • Scallops

  • Spinach

  • Tofu

  • Lamb

  • Beef

  • Salmon




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