At this season’s holiday dinner table, you can impress the giblets off your family and friends with some eye-opening facts about tryptophan, the essential amino acid commonly blamed for making you drowsy after that big Thanksgiving meal and often associated with turkey.
But actually, tryptophan is found in many other foods that contain protein, including all types of meat, fish, nuts, seeds, eggs and dairy products.
Five fast facts about tryptophan and sleep:
- Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, which means the only way you can get it is from food. Your body cannot produce it. Bonus fact: the body can make 10 amino acids, called nonessential amino acids, which we will not list because that would be geek overload.
- Tryptophan converts to a molecule that’s used to make serotonin and melatonin. According to studies, increasing tryptophan in the blood directly increases serotonin and melatonin.
- Seratonin is a neurotransmitter that is also known as the “happy hormone.” It helps transmit information across the nervous system, and in the brain, it influences sleep, cognition and mood.
- Serotonin converts to melatonin which is a hormone produced in the pineal gland and helps maintain a healthy wake-sleep cycle.
- Some people take tryptophan supplements as a sleep aid or antidepressant.
As we mentioned, tryptophan has to be obtained from our diet so it’s important know the best sources for this amino acid that plays such important roles in our mental and physical health.
Eight foods with tryptophan, with options for vegetarians and vegans:
- Salmon – Nutritionists recommend two portions per week of salmon to get enough tryptophan. Salmon is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids which support healthy bones, skin and eye function; and a source of vitamin D needed for strong bones, teeth and muscles. Vegans and vegetarians can get omega-3 from pumpkin seeds, walnuts and soya.
- Poultry – Chicken, turkey and goose. Lean poultry (meaning the breast or white meat) is high in protein and low in fat.
- Eggs – How you cook your eggs will affect its healthfulness. Boiling or poaching doesn’t add any fat; frying does.
- Spinach – This is a great source of tryptophan as well as iron, which helps the body make red blood cells. Low iron can lead to anemia, low energy and difficulty breathing.
- Seeds – While seeds don’t contain as much tryptophan as salmon, poultry or eggs, they are a good source of protein for vegetarians and vegans.
- Nuts – Nuts are a good source of protein, healthy fats and fiber.
- Milk – It provides protein and calcium, which helps build healthy bones and teeth.
- Soy products – Tryptophan can be found in tofu, soymilk and soy sauce. These are all great options for vegetarians and vegans. (See other foods that promote sleep.)