Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that can’t be synthesized by the body and must come from diet. People who experience problems sleeping or suffer from seasonal affective disorder who want to control their symptoms naturally seek out foods high in trytophan. This is because tryptophan is a precursor to a natural brain chemical called serotonin, which plays a role in sleep and mood. Some studies show that trytophan-rich foods also help with the symptoms of depression. If you’re trying to get more tryptophan in your diet, which foods should you choose?
Foods High in Tryptophan
Meats and dairy foods are some of the best sources of tryptophan. Contrary to popular belief, turkey isn’t extremely high in tryptophan but is on par with chicken and beef when it comes to tryptophan content. In fact, egg whites have four times more tryptophan than turkey and Atlantic cod has three times as much. Other noteworthy foods high in tryptophan are soybeans, cheese, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds.
Tryptophan-Rich Foods Aren’t the Complete Story
If you’re eating a tryptophan-rich diet to ease the symptoms of depression or help with sleep, it’s not as simple as just eating foods high in tryptophan since tryptophan has to enter the brain to exert its effects. Unfortunately, it has to compete with other amino acids competing to get across the blood-brain barrier. The key is to get those other amino acids out of the picture.
One way to increase the amount of tryptophan that enters the brain is to eat foods high in tryptophan along with a source of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates cause more insulin to be released into the bloodstream. Once insulin is released, it helps the other amino acids enter cells so they’re not in competition for transport across the blood-brain barrier into the brain. This allows tryptophan an easy trek into the brain where it fan work its magic.
Getting the Benefits of Tryptophan
If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, pair a tryptophan-rich food with a carbohydrate. A cheddar cheese sandwich is a good choice, because the bread will boost insulin production, making it easier for the tryptophan in the cheese to reach the brain. Other good choices are a bowl of oatmeal with milk, a potato and egg white omelet, a turkey or beef sandwich, ground sesame seeds spread on bread, or a plate of spaghetti. Be sure to eat these combos an hour before bedtime since it takes time for tryptophan to be transported into the brain.
The Bottom Line?
Foods high in trytophan need to be combined with a carbohydrate to help transport the tryptophan into the brain. Eat the two together, and, hopefully, you’ll enjoy better sleep.
World’s Healthiest Foods website.
Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.