Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Food & Recipes

Font Size

The Truth About Tryptophan

Does tryptophan really make you sleepy -- and is turkey to blame? Experts set the record straight.

Amino Acid Overload

When you eat foods rich in tryptophan, as the food digests, amino acids - not just tryptophan - make their way into the bloodstream. This causes competition among the various amino acids to enter the brain.

"Tryptophan, which is a bulky amino acid, would have to stand in line to get through the blood-brain barrier with a whole bunch of amino acids," Somer says. "It would be like standing in line when the Harry Potter movie comes out and you didn't get in line early enough. The chances of getting in [to see the movie] are pretty slim. That's what happens when you eat a protein-rich food. Tryptophan has to compete with all these other amino acids. It waits in line to get through the blood-brain barrier and very little of it makes it across."

The small, all-carbohydrate snack is tryptophan's ticket across the blood-brain barrier, where it can boost serotonin levels. So have your turkey, Somer says, because it will increase your store of tryptophan in the body, but count on the carbohydrates to help give you the mood boost or the restful sleep.

"It's the all-carb snack that ends up being like a sneak preview of the [Harry Potter] movie, where no one else knows it's showing," she says.

Too Much of a Sleepy Thing

Is it possible to have too much tryptophan in the body? Not really, Somer says. "Except if you end up eating a lot of tryptophan, it means you're eating a lot of protein and Americans already eat a lot of protein. It's the only nutrient we get too much of," she says.

"If you're getting even one serving of 3 ounces of meat, chicken, or fish; a couple of glasses of milk or yogurt; or if you're eating beans and rice, you will get all the amino acids you need and in there will be the tryptophan," Somer says.

Thanksgiving Grogginess: Look Beyond the Turkey

So if eating turkey isn't exactly the same as popping a sleeping pill, why the sudden grogginess as soon as our holiday feast is over?

"It boils down to Thanksgiving being a time when people overeat," Jackson Blatner says. "When people overeat food, the digestion process takes a lot of energy. Don't incriminate the turkey that you ate," she says of post-Thanksgiving meal exhaustion, "incriminate the three plates of food that you piled high."

And let's not forget that the holidays generally mean time off from work and with family. Many people feel more relaxed to begin with (family wars not withstanding). Add alcohol to the mix, and voila! Sleep!

Speaking of sleep, Joyce Walsleban, PhD, associate professor at New York University's Sleep Disorders Center, suggests we all get plenty of it. "Coming up on the holidays and trying to get all the things done that one would normally be doing, you short cut your sleep and that's never helpful. By the time the holiday comes, everyone has gotten sick."

At least then you'll have a good excuse to lay down and take a nap.

1|2
Reviewed on November 18, 2009

Today on WebMD

Four spoons with mustards
What condiments are made of and how much to use.
salmon and spinach
How to get what you need.
 
grilled veggies
Easy ideas for dinner tonight.
Greek Salad
Health benefits, what you can eat and more.
 

WebMD Recipe Finder

Browse our collection of healthy, delicious recipes, from WebMD and Eating Well magazine.



bread
Recipes
soup
Recipes
 
roasted chicken
Recipes
grilled steak
Video
 
vegetarian sandwich
Recipes
fresh vegetables
Recipes
 
smoothie
fitArticle
Foods To Boost Mens Heath Slideshow
Slideshow