Complete Guide to Tryptophan


Thanksgiving isn’t the only time of year we get to eat turkey, but it is one of the most iconic. What else is the holiday for, anyway, than eating and napping?

There’s nothing better than bunkering down after a long meal with your family in order to settle your stomach and to avoid those age-old debates. There’s something about that turkey that’s quite good at putting us to sleep – or is there?

what is tryptophan

Tryptophan, or the amino acid which is found in turkey, is said to be the same amino acid that puts people to sleep just in time for them to avoid doing the dishes.

What is tryptophan, though? Does it really work to knock you out, or is the tryptophan sleep more of an excuse to take a nap at the end of a holiday?

Let’s take a better look at tryptophan and the kind of foods it’s in, so we can develop an understanding of why it’s so closely associated with one of the biggest Western holidays and the most pleasant of naps.

What is Tryptophan?

Tryptophan is also known as L-tryptophan. As we’ve mentioned, it’s an amino acid that is popularly found in turkey. This is not an exclusive kind, however – in fact, it’s considered one of the “essential” amino acids.

These acids all work together in order to form proteins and are considered the foundation of most life – and yet, tryptophan’s primary reputation comes from its supposed ability to put people to sleep.

How does tryptophan work? When you consume this acid, it turns into Vitamin B or niacin. Niacin works to help create serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that is directly affiliated with boosts in your mood.

Niacin also maintains the amount of melatonin in a person’s body. Melatonin helps control a person’s day-to-day sleep cycle. In light of this, tryptophan seems to be directly affiliated, thanks to its chemical conversation, with other bodily elements that help you get to rest.

You could naturally assume, then, that it would serve as a remarkably effective sleep aid. Tryptophan is also used, though, as an athletic aid and can help some people deal with the symptoms of menopause.

Tryptophan Foods

Here, we can begin to dispel some of the myths about tryptophan and tryptophan turkey.

Popular belief would have us assume that turkey is one of the only foods with tryptophan in it. However, this is not the case.

Foods high in tryptophan include eggs, yogurt, and all sorts of meat, including fish or chicken. We eat these tryptophan foods, as you may be able to guess, just about every day.

tryptophan sleep

Why, then, has turkey developed the reputation for putting folks to sleep, while chicken and fish have remained unscathed?

Sleep, Turkey, and the Holidays

Herein lies a few additional details about tryptophan, turkey, and its use as a sleep aid.

Tryptophan, as has been mentioned, is an amino acid. However, it’s one of many that get delivered into the bloodstream when turkey is eaten.

In fact, the amount of tryptophan in turkey is so negligible, the amino acid and its effects on a person’s sleepiness are beaten out by the other active amino acids in the meat.

But think about Thanksgiving – the holiday that tryptophan turkey and naps are most affiliated with. You don’t only eat turkey on this holiday. You also eat mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, rolls, and all sorts of carb-y side dishes.

When you eat those carbs, they release insulin into your body. That insulin nulls just about every other amino acid that you happen to eat – except for tryptophan.

So, when you eat mash potatoes, rolls, and turkey, the insulin from the carbs clear your bloodstream of all other amino acids. As such, the tryptophan can make its way to your brain uninhibited.

Ergo, when you eat turkey during your Thanksgiving meal, it’s easier for you to get tired.

It’s not the turkey that makes you tired – it’s the combination of this amino acid and other foods in your body that delivers you to an excellent Thanksgiving nap.

Here’s a video explaining more on how tryptophan works.

Impact of Tryptophan on Serotonin Levels

So, what we know now is that tryptophan works excellently when paired with insulin. However, it’s worthwhile to explore the relationship tryptophan has with serotonin.

Serotonin, as we’ve mentioned, is directly correlated with a person’s happiness. When serotonin is produced in the brain, you’re more likely to be cheerful.

This neurotransmitter is actually referred to as “the happiness hormone,” since it’s so essential to your day-to-day moods.

Serotonin production, unfortunately, decreases as you age, and sometimes it can be healthy for you to take serotonin supplements.

Serotonin does more than improve your mood, though. This neurotransmitter also helps you sleep. Thereby, when it pairs with tryptophan, serotonin can serve as a great sleep aid.

Foods that Boost Serotonin Levels in the Brain

Let’s take a quick look through some of the lesser known foods that carry tryptophan and thereby boost the amount of serotonin that your brain produces.


Of course, it’d be silly if we left out an old favorite like turkey. Like we’ve discussed, the tryptophan in turkey helps create serotonin in the brain, no matter what alternative foods you are able to eat with it.

However, when you eat turkey with a reasonable spread of carbs on the side, then the tryptophan is more likely to cause an immediate effect on your sleep schedule and serotonin levels.


As another type of meat, salmon, naturally carries a significant amount of protein into the body. It is also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and the tryptophan amino acid.

tryptophan foods

This meal is also lower in calories, so salmon can boost your mood by ensuring that you produce enough serotonin and your brain chemistry remains balanced.


Most greens that are of a darker color are excellent sources of the amino acids that encourage the production of serotonin.

Spinach, for example, not only serves as a healthy source of iron, but it doubles up on your production of tryptophan, and, thereby, serotonin.

As such, eating spinach is one of the best things you can do for your body in order to ensure that you stay healthy, in terms of your diet, sleep schedule, and overall happiness.


We all know that when you add milk to your coffee or when you make hot chocolate properly, your mood is likely to improve. This isn’t the way milk serves to boost your serotonin levels, but it certainly is a bonus.

More biologically speaking, milk serves as a source of calcium, but amino acids in all sorts of milk will also ensure that you produce more serotonin on a day-to-day basis.


Certain nuts, like almonds and pecans, also serve as excellent sources of the same amino acids that boost serotonin production. Like most meats, nuts are full of protein, and some can carry tryptophan as well.

Hazelnuts, for example, are at least nineteen percent tryptophan, whereas almonds are twenty-one percent.

Not only, then, will eating these sorts of nuts give you a dose of tryptophan, but that amino acid can do good work in order to ensure that you’re producing a healthy amount of serotonin.


Similarly to nuts, seeds are an excellent source of protein and tryptophan.

foods high in tryptophan

Sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds, in particular, are healthy alternative snacks that not only improve your diet, but that can help increase the amount of “happy hormones” you produce.

Using Tryptophan as a Sleep Aid

With all of that in mind, you may assume that concentrated tryptophan would have good use as a sleep aid.

Without the other amino acids present in forms of food, tryptophan delivered in pill-form should, hypothetically, help you sleep more easily throughout the night.

As a matter of fact, tryptophan can and is used to combat sleeping disorders as a proven safe supplement to take if you need assistance on obtaining a good night’s rest.

We’ve already noted that tryptophan, too, is directly related to the production of serotonin. As such, if a person is suffering from low moods, mood swings, or diagnosed depression, then tryptophan supplements can be leveraged in order to boost serotonin production and regulate certain behaviors.

In fact, tryptophan supplements are far more useful as beneficial behavior modifiers than they are as sleep aids. Nonetheless, an improvement in one area does not negate the benefits these supplements provide in other areas.

Tryptophan Supplements – The Details

The myth of turkey helping you fall asleep has been around for quite some time. It was only in the early 1970s that medical professionals began pursuing the study of tryptophan supplements.

These studies, according to Sam Dean of MelBeta, encouraged people who struggled to fall asleep at night to take between one and fifteen grams of tryptophan in order to get an appropriate amount of rest.

Dean says that when these studies were expanded in the 1980s, an even smaller dosage of tryptophan was proven to aid in treating sleeplessness. People who struggled to sleep through the night could take as little as two hundred and fifty milligrams of tryptophan.

All that said, tryptophan isn’t a cure-all for insomnia or any struggle with sleeping. Neither is it a singular cure for depression or other mood-impacting mental illnesses.

Here’s a video explaining more on using tryptophan for anxiety and depression.

Alternative Sleep Aids to Tryptophan

If you’re looking for alternative sleep aids to tryptophan, you’re in luck.

There are a number of natural and prescription treatments for sleeplessness that you can take, either as part of a meal or independently, that will help you sleep through the night.

You won’t even have to cook yourself an entire turkey to manage it!


Melatonin is a neurotransmitter that is produced in the body similar to serotonin. You can naturally increase your melatonin production by eating cherries, walnuts, pineapples, or oranges.

Alternatively, you can take melatonin supplements. These supplements are ideal for ensuring that you reach REM sleep or the deepest stage of sleep.

When the dietary methods of increasing your melatonin production are paired with the same types of food that allow you to increase your serotonin production, not only will your production of neurotransmitters be healthier, but you’ll be able to sleep more easily at night.


Valerian is not a neurotransmitter, but instead, an herb that when ingested, can help treat anxiety and insomnia.

While the chemical processes behind this herb’s functionality aren’t perfectly understood, when taken in pill form or as an oil, valerian is said to help your body produce serotonin.

As such, you can better achieve the sleep levels you need. Taking valerian will also help with the symptoms of menopause, but you should not take valerian in any form while drinking alcohol or taking Xanax, as this can have dangerous effects on your health.

tryptophan turkey


Finally, we can take a look at chamomile. Chamomile is, perhaps, one of the best known natural supplements that can help you sleep through the night.

The most common form that chamomile as a sleep supplement takes is as tea. If you steep your tea for the appropriate amount of time, it won’t become bitter, and you’ll be able to drift off shortly after you finish the cup.

If tea isn’t really your thing, you can also make use of chamomile in pill form or as oil. Either method will ensure that you get a little more rest in the evenings.


When all is said and done, tryptophan is one of many amino acids that enter your body when you sit down to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner. It is not a cure-all for sleeplessness, however.

Even still, its impact on your serotonin levels is notable, and taking tryptophan supplements can help you sleep through the night. So can taking melatonin, valerian, or chamomile.

If you find yourself drifting off after you eat your turkey and pie, then, feel free to blame it on the turkey – but keep in mind that the chemical processes behind your sleepy holiday are a little more complicated than myth and popular culture would have you believe.

What’s your experience with tryptophan foods?


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