The Truth About Tryptophan
Does tryptophan really make you sleepy -- and is turkey to blame? Experts set the record straight.
Every year at Thanksgiving, most of us engage in an annual rite of passage:
stuffing ourselves mercilessly with turkey, cranberry sauce, and pie. Not a bad
way to spend a Thursday. But inevitably, in that hour between feeling so
full you think you'll explode and gearing up for round two with the leftovers,
your relatives can find you conked out on the couch.
Along comes Aunt Mildred with her armchair scientific explanation. You're
tired, she tells you, because the turkey you just ate is laden with
L-tryptophan. Tryptophan, she says, makes you tired.
So is your aunt right? Is the turkey really what's to blame for Thanksgiving
sleepiness? The experts helped WebMD sort out the facts.
What is L-Tryptophan?
L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid. The body can't make it, so diet
must supply tryptophan. Amino acids are building blocks of proteins. Foods rich in tryptophan include, you guessed
it, turkey. Tryptophan is also found in other poultry, meat, cheese, yogurt,
fish, and eggs.
Tryptophan is used by the body to make niacin, a B vitamin that is important for digestion,
skin and nerves, and serotonin. Serotonin is a brain chemical that plays a
large role in mood) and can help to create a feeling of well-being and
relaxation. "When levels of serotonin are high, you're in a better mood, sleep better, and have a higher
pain tolerance," says Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, author of numerous nutrition books, including her latest, Eat Your Way to
Tryptophan is needed for the body to produce serotonin. Serotonin is used to
make melatonin, a hormone that helps to control your sleep
and wake cycles.
Turkey the Sleep Inducer?
As it turns out, turkey contains no more of the amino acid tryptophan than
other kinds of poultry. In fact, turkey actually has slightly less
tryptophan than chicken, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, LDN, an American
Dietetic Association spokeswoman and author of The Flexitarian Diet.
Jackson Blatner says that if we're sleepy on Thanksgiving as a direct result
of eating turkey, then eating other foods rich in tryptophan should have the
"When is the last time someone ate a chicken breast at a summertime barbecue
and thought they felt sluggish [because of it]?" she asks.
Turkey is, indeed, a good source of tryptophan. Still, it's a myth that
eating foods high in tryptophan boosts brain levels of tryptophan and therefore
brain levels of serotonin, Somer says.
Somer says that proteins like turkey, chicken, and fish, which are high in
tryptophan, require assistance from foods high in carbohydrates to affect
"Tryptophan is quite high in milk and turkey, but that's not the food that
will give you the serotonin boost," she says. It's a small,
all-carbohydrate snack -- no more than 30 grams of carbohydrates -- in
combination with the tryptophan stored in your body from food you've already
eaten that will give you the biggest boost of serotonin, Somer says.
A serotonin-boosting snack may include a few Fig Newtons, half of a small
whole wheat bagel with honey drizzled over it, or a few cups of air-popped
popcorn some time after you've eaten foods high in tryptophan. "Research shows
that a light, 30 gram carbohydrate snack just before bed will actually help you
sleep better," Somer says.