Brain food – tryptophan


Why is it that when you’re stressed, you crave carbohydrates and sugar? There are a number of reasons, but let’s focus on this post in Tryprophan.

In the magical world call human body, there are always very delicate balances that drive optimal health with many things acting against each other for this optimum balance. And Tryptophan is involved in one the greatest battles of them all. Typtophan is one of the ultimate brain food but we first need to help it get there!


Tryptophan basics

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid (found in foods that contain protein) that is critical for health. After consumption, it is metabolically transformed to serotonin, melatonin, kynurenine, vitamin niacin (B3) and B6.

Interesting enough tryptophan is 1 of 9 essential amino acids, and is the least available of all amino acids. As such, tryptophan availability is an important factor when discussing of protein biosynthesis. 

Tryptophan plays a pivotal role in 

  • Hormones and Vitamins : The creation of hormones of seratonin, melatonin, kynurenine, vitamin niacin (B3) and B6.
  • Immune : The regulation of the immune response, by slowing down T cell proliferation and hence is associated with better survival in patients suffering from cancer.
  • Diabetes : Triptophan availability is related to severe illnesses as metabolic syndrome and diabetes. 
  • Gut absorption :Other human diseases linked to Triptophan are those generated at the level of gut absorption, as Hartnup disease.
  • Mood : There is strong evidence between gut dysfunction, Triptophan availability, and mood.
  • DNA repair : Tryptophan is employed in the correction of errors in the process of DNA replica production.
  • Histamine regulation : With the right levels of tryptophan, histamine operated functions will be normally tuned.

Tryptophan stealers and helpers

Here’s what makes tryptophan so complicated: There is a lot of competion for tryptophan in order for it to be properly utilised.

Amino Acids

Triptophan enters the brain in competition with other large amino acids (LNNAs such as valine, isoleucine, leucine, tyrosine, phenylalanine and methionine) through a common transporter system. 

The amount of Tryptophan entering the brain depends on the relation to the other amino-acids. 

Hence, ingestion of a normal protein amount, results in a relatively small increase in Tryptophan but a larger elevation of other LNNAs. This results in reduced availability of Tryptophan in the brain. If combining protein with carbohydrates, on the contrary, the end result is an increase brain Tryprophan levels. This is due to elevated insulin which in promote uptake of LNAAs except Tryptophan to the muscles, and making Tryptophan available for the brain. This is caused by the fact that Tryptophan is bound to albumin whereas other LNAA are not. 


Exercise has the same effect like insulin and carbs in helping Tryptophan reach the brain. Exercise mobilises amino-acids towards the muscle tissues and helps with the absorption of Tryptophan. Adding some daily walking after food is a great to support your Tryptophan!!!

Stress and inflammation

The calmer you are and the less your body suffers from inflammation, the more of your tryptophan goes toward making serotonin. The more stressed out or inflamed you are, the more of your tryptophan goes toward making quinolinic acid, a substance that’s bad for your brain. In other words, stress steals your tryptophan.

This is why,  under a lot of stress or with chronic inflammation or a chronic disease you crave carbohydrates. Your tryptophan is being stolen!


Dehydration can cause a severe depletion of tryptophan since water is key for passing of nutrients between the blood-brain barrier. It is also a natural regulator for salt absorption.


  • Support Tryptophan to reach your brain and make hormones like seratonin by adding some carbs with dinner, taking long walks and drinking plenty of water throughout the day. 
  • Meditation and stress management is also essential as it hurts your Tryptophan status.

Where to get Tryptophan from

Tryptophan is present in small amounts in most protein foods and in higher amounts in eggs, yoghurt, milk, bananas, dates, poultry, and peanuts. Good amounts are also spinach, seaweed, mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, turnip greens, red lettuce, asparagus.

Food rich in antioxidant compounds will improve tryptophan status in the brain. These compounds counteract immune response and tryptophan breakdown. Compounds like vitamin C and E, resveratrol and coffee flavonoids have been shown to be helpful.

With regards to triggering enough insulin you don’t need a lot carbs. Adding one cooled-down potato to your dinner will trigger the processes required to ensure proper Tryptophan utilisation.

Note that taking pure tryptophan works in a different way than when it is obtained from a food source.

Final Thoughts

We all know stress is a big factor when sleeping. Now you know why. As your tryptophan levels drop, so do your serotonin levels. Suddenly you’re depressed, and you find yourself bingeing on chocolate and carbs. What’s more, with your serotonin levels tumbling, you don’t have enough serotonin to make melatonin, so you can’t sleep.  The key to keeping your tryptophan from being stolen is to identify your stressors.

By implementing stress reduction techniques, you can turn your tryptophan into feel-good serotonin and sleep-well melatonin.  Pratice breathing for a few minutes every day to help you wind down and be relaxed.

Exercise and even walking can do wonders for your Tryptophan  levels which you can always have some healthy carbs with your evening meal to help you get naturally into sleep!

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *