Tryptophan: The Brain-Boosting Powerhouse

Tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in protein-rich foods, is foundational in producing serotonin, a key neurotransmitter that impacts mood, sleep, and cognition.
Tryptophan Sources of Tryptophan

Key Takeaways: 

Tryptophan Benefits 

1. Mood regulation

Tryptophan treats mood disorders and promotes positive social behavior. 

2. Cognition and Memory

Tryptophan is critical for memory and cognition, likely due to its role in serotonin production. 

3. Sleep Regulation

Tryptophan helps improve sleep quality and duration, likely due to the enhanced production of melatonin and serotonin. 

4. Other mental health issues

Including ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, OCD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Eating Disorders, Depression, Anxiety, and Insomnia.


What is Tryptophan?

Tryptophan's Role in The Body

Tryptophan is more than just an amino acid in protein-rich foods; it's a powerhouse that fuels essential processes in our bodies. While many know amino acids as the building blocks of proteins, they play several other vital roles. [1]

Tryptophan transforms into a unique molecule named 5-HTP. This transformation is a big deal because 5-HTP paves the way for producing two essential substances: serotonin and melatonin. [2]

Serotonin is a primary player that influences sleep, thinking, and mood. [3] It's one reason why we feel refreshed and uplifted after certain meals. [4]

As for melatonin, it's our sleep guardian. This hormone helps regulate our sleep patterns. [5]

The Link Between Tryptophan and 5-HTP

Tryptophan's journey in our body is like a stepping stone path. It first transforms into a molecule called 5-HTP, which then evolves into serotonin. It's a sequential process, each step depending on the previous one. [6]

Research consistently points out an interesting link: adjusting Tryptophan levels has a domino effect on 5-HTP and serotonin amounts. This fact means that Tryptophan's influence comes from its relationship with these two molecules. [7]

Serotonin and its Importance

Serotonin and 5-HTP don't just hang around in the brain; they're involved in critical processes. They play roles in our emotions, and any disturbances in their functioning can affect our mental well-being, leading to depression and anxiety. [4]

Interestingly, many medications for depression aim to enhance serotonin's performance in the brain, increasing its activity for better mental health. [8]

But there's more: serotonin isn't just about mood. It's also instrumental in our brain's learning processes. Optimal serotonin levels enhance our ability to learn and retain information. [9]

Furthermore, treatments using 5-HTP can boost serotonin levels, which can assist in managing mood disorders, panic episodes, and sleep disturbances. [10]

So, the transformation from Tryptophan to serotonin is significant, shaping our mood and how we learn and process information.


Tryptophan and Mood

Research on Tryptophan and Mood

Research has delved deep into the connection between Tryptophan and our mood. Some studies found that people with depression often have lower-than-usual Tryptophan levels. [11]

But how can we truly understand the role of Tryptophan? Scientists have tried a unique approach: altering blood levels of this amino acid. They gave study participants a mix of amino acids, with or without Tryptophan. [12] This experiment allows them to see the effects of having more or less Tryptophan in the bloodstream.

Tryptophan's Influence on Anxiety

In one intriguing experiment, 15 healthy adults were placed twice in a stressful situation. The first time with normal Tryptophan levels and the second with reduced levels. The results? People felt more anxious, tense, and nervous when their Tryptophan was low. [13]

Boosting Social Behavior

These findings suggest that when Tryptophan runs low, it might fuel feelings of anxiety. Furthermore, it could even make aggressive people more impulsive. [14]
On a brighter note, boosting one's Tryptophan intake might encourage better social behavior. [15]

Tryptophan and Memory

The Impacts of Tryptophan Levels on Memory

Changing Tryptophan levels in the body can impact how the brain functions, especially in areas like cognition.

A particular study observed something interesting: when Tryptophan levels dropped, people's long-term memory didn't perform as well when these levels were normal. [16]

This happened even if the participants had no family history of depression.
A comprehensive review also found a connection between low Tryptophan levels and challenges with cognition and memory. [7]

Memories tied to our personal events and experiences seemed particularly affected.

But why does this happen? It's likely because reducing Tryptophan levels leads to a drop in serotonin production, which plays a pivotal role in these brain functions.

Tryptophan and Sleep

Tryptophan's Role in Sleep Quality

Tryptophan has a remarkable journey inside our bodies. It helps produce serotonin, which changes into another crucial molecule: melatonin.

Boosting Tryptophan in your blood will likely up both serotonin and melatonin. [17]
Melatonin is produced naturally in the body, but you can also find it in foods like tomatoes, strawberries, and grapes. [18] And yes, it is also the supplement many take before bedtime.

Why? Because melatonin is like the body's natural alarm clock. It regulates our sleep and wake times, which affects other processes, from how our bodies process food to how our immune system functions. [19]

Research on Tryptophan and Sleep

Studies found a brilliant connection between Tryptophan and sleep: up your Tryptophan intake, and you might sleep better, thanks to the rise in melatonin. [20]

One experiment revealed that adults who ate cereals enriched with Tryptophan for breakfast and dinner dozed off quicker and slept longer than those who had regular cereals. [21]

An added bonus? They felt less anxious and depressed, probably due to the boost in serotonin and melatonin.

And if you are thinking about shortcuts, yes, taking melatonin directly as a supplement gives your sleep both a quantity and quality boost. [22]

Tryptophan’s Role in 9 Mental Health Issues

Tryptophan’s influence on serotonin levels can enhance the quality of life for many facing diverse brain and mental challenges. We will list nine of them.


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is linked with lower Tryptophan levels. Notably, children with ADHD have shown a 50% drop in these levels. [23]

2. Bipolar Disorder

Tryptophan can alleviate depression related to bipolar disorder. While it isn’t a standalone treatment, it can complement conventional ones. Also, Tryptophan can potentially alleviate the symptoms of tardive dyskinesia, a prevalent adverse outcome associated with antipsychotic medications. [24]

3. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Tryptophan, combined with niacin and vitamin B6, can bolster the effects of SSRIs used for OCD treatment. [25]

4. Memory Loss

Low levels of Tryptophan can impair long-term memory. The good news? Tryptophan supplementation can sharpen memory for both healthy individuals and those with depression. [16]

5. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Tryptophan, either alone or with light therapy, can ease SAD symptoms. [26]

6. Eating Disorders

Low tryptophan can trigger binge eating, especially post-dieting. With the support of vitamin B6, Tryptophan supplements can better eating habits and mood. [27]

7. Depression

Tryptophan has shown potential similar to antidepressant drugs, offering hope to those seeking alternatives to standard medications. [28]

8. Anxiety

Tryptophan can be a beacon of relief for those battling anxiety, including social anxiety and panic attacks. [29]

9. Insomnia

As a precursor to melatonin, Tryptophan can aid in falling asleep faster and ensuring a sound night’s rest.

Sources of Tryptophan

Tryptophan-Rich Foods

Tryptophan is present across a variety of protein-rich foods. Whenever you dig into a protein-packed meal, you are likely getting a dose of this beneficial amino acid.

What about the amount you get? Well, that depends on the quantity and type of protein you're munching on.

Tryptophan-rich foods include poultry, shrimp, eggs, and crab. In fact, the average diet is estimated to dish out around 1 gram of Tryptophan every day. [30]

Tryptophan Supplements

If you are keen on boosting your Tryptophan levels even more, you can use supplements. Whether it's straight-up Tryptophan or the molecules it helps produce, like 5-HTP and melatonin.

In fact, Tryptophan supplements work better than food. Let's see how.

Why Tryptophan Supplement Works Better Than Food

Tryptophan in Food vs. Supplements

Are you considering more Tryptophan in your diet? You might wonder: which is better? Food or supplements?

When you think of Tryptophan-rich foods, you'll likely list animal products: meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy. But there's a twist.

While they're high in Tryptophan, they're also packed with protein. And here's the catch: Tryptophan and serotonin levels tend to dip after eating protein-rich foods.

The reason is that protein hinders the conversion of Tryptophan into serotonin.
Also, factors like stress, age, magnesium or vitamin B6 deficiencies, and insulin resistance can hinder this conversion.

Here's something surprising: Even if your diet is loaded with Tryptophan-rich foods, less than 1% of it is utilized for brain serotonin production. [31]

That's why, in this instance, Tryptophan supplements often have an edge over food sources. They can provide a more direct boost where it counts.

Why Tryptophan Supplement is Better Than 5-HTP

Raising serotonin levels can be done using the supplement 5-HTP, a stepping stone in Tryptophan conversion to serotonin. However, there are reasons to consider Tryptophan as a superior choice:

1. Proven Benefits

Tryptophan has a track record of benefits for various mental health concerns. 5-HTP's advantages are less concrete, with some believing its effects are more hype.

2. Side Effects and Efficacy

5-HTP can come with significant side effects and interactions. [32] Additionally, its effectiveness tends to diminish if taken for extended periods. [33]

3. Brain Chemical Balance

While 5-HTP boosts serotonin, it does so with a drawback. Over time, 5-HTP can deplete dopamine, another essential neurotransmitter for mood. [34] As a result, some find that 5-HTP works initially but loses its punch after a while.
Tryptophan, in contrast, promotes dopamine levels and also encourages the production of mood-boosting endorphins. [28]

In other words, while Tryptophan and 5-HTP play roles in serotonin synthesis, they have different benefits and considerations. Tryptophan, with its broader spectrum of benefits and fewer drawbacks, often stands out as the preferred choice for many.

Safety and Side Effects

Safety Considerations

Tryptophan itself is not harmful, but supplementation is not a one-size-fits-all solution. People with liver or kidney issues, pregnant women, and nursing mothers should be cautious as its safety has not been confirmed yet.

Common side effects include digestive discomfort, reduced appetite, headaches, and feeling drowsy.

One important thing to be aware of is not mixing Tryptophan with SSRIs or supplements that boost serotonin, like 5-HTP or SAM-e. This combo could dangerously spike serotonin levels, risking a serotonin syndrome condition. [32]

Also, combining Tryptophan with sedative drugs or calming supplements can lead to extreme drowsiness.


The Role of Tryptophan

Tryptophan, a seemingly humble amino acid, is indispensable to our mental well-being. Found in various protein-rich foods, it's a cornerstone in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter integral to mood, sleep, and cognitive functions.

While our diets provide some level of this amino acid, it's essential to understand the balance required for optimal brain health.

Research showcases the vast potential of Tryptophan in addressing a myriad of mental health concerns, from depression to insomnia.

Additionally, its benefits extend beyond just serotonin synthesis, influencing other neurotransmitters like dopamine.

Additional Readings

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[1]Amino acids: metabolism, functions, and nutrition - PubMed (
[2]Conversion L-tryptophan to melatonin in the gastrointestinal tract: the new high performance liquid chromatography method enabling simultaneous determination of six metabolites of L-tryptophan by native fluorescence and UV-VIS detection - PubMed (
[3]The expanded biology of serotonin - PubMed (
[4]5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor - PubMed (
[5]Melatonin - PubMed (
[6]Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis - PubMed (
[7]Effects of acute tryptophan depletion on memory, attention and executive functions: a systematic review - PubMed (
[8]Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants: A revision of the 2008 British Association for Psychopharmacology guidelines - PubMed (
[9]5-HT system and cognition - ScienceDirect
[10]Acute L-5-hydroxytryptophan administration inhibits carbon dioxide-induced panic in panic disorder patients - PubMed (
[12]Tryptophan depletion causes a rapid lowering of mood in normal males - PubMed (
[13]Effects of tryptophan depletion on anxiety and on panic provoked by carbon dioxide challenge - PubMed (
[14]The effect of tryptophan depletion and enhancement on subjective and behavioural aggression in normal male subjects - PubMed (
[15]Tryptophan supplementation modulates social behavior: A review - PubMed (
[16]Tryptophan depletion in normal volunteers produces selective impairment in memory consolidation - PubMed (
[17]The influence of intravenous L-tryptophan on plasma melatonin and sleep in men - PubMed (
[18]Melatonin in traditional Mediterranean diets - PubMed (
[19]Melatonin: Physiological effects in humans - PubMed (
[20]Effects of tryptophan-rich breakfast and light exposure during the daytime on melatonin secretion at night - PubMed (
[21]Tryptophan-enriched cereal intake improves nocturnal sleep, melatonin, serotonin, and total antioxidant capacity levels and mood in elderly humans - PubMed (
[22]Prolonged-release melatonin improves sleep quality and morning alertness in insomnia patients aged 55 years and older and has no withdrawal effects - PubMed (
[23]Altered tryptophan and alanine transport in fibroblasts from boys with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): an in vitro study - PMC (
[24]L-tryptophan in neuroleptic-induced tardive dyskinesia - PubMed (
[25]Pharmacotherapy | Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders | Stanford Medicine
[26]L-tryptophan augmentation of light therapy in patients with seasonal affective disorder - PubMed (
[27]Vitamin B6 level is associated with symptoms of depression - PubMed (
[28]L-Tryptophan: Basic Metabolic Functions, Behavioral Research and Therapeutic Indications - PMC (
[29]Effects of tryptophan depletion on anxiety and on panic provoked by carbon dioxide challenge - ScienceDirect
[30]Effects and side effects associated with the non-nutritional use of tryptophan by humans - PubMed (
[31]L-Tryptophan: Basic Metabolic Functions, Behavioral Research and Therapeutic Indications - PMC (
[32]5-HTP: MedlinePlus Supplements
[33]5-htp: Health Benefits, Side Effects, Uses, Dose & Precautions (
[34]Research Breakdown on 5-HTP - Examine

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