What is Tryptophan?

For any Seinfeld watchers or myth followers out there, you’re probably already aware of that urban legend that surrounds turkey. If you eat a lot of it, supposedly, you will sleep like a baby due to the tryptophan contained within the turkey. Seriously, this is something that most of us have heard of. Something not a lot of us have heard of, however, is what exactly tryptophan is and what it does. Tryptophan, known also as L-Trp or D-Trp, is only one of 20 standard amino acids.

This particular amino acid is crucial in the human diet, and it can be found in many of the protein-laden foods we eat on a daily basis. Amino acids are extremely essential to life, having many functions in our metabolism. One such function is serving as the building blocks of proteins, combining to help us grow and to remain strong. To look at any technical explanation of tryptophan, the rhetoric can get a bit complicated. To put it as simply as it can possibly be: it’s just another important amino acid we find in the food we eat. That still leaves some people wondering about the “myth” side of this amino acid, though. Like: does it really make you sleepy?

Tryptophan Myths Explained

As far as eating turkey goes, the myth that the tryptophan levels contained in the world’s favorite holiday bird will put you to sleep are blatantly false. Although turkey does contain relatively high levels of tryptophan, we actually eat more foods on a day to day basis containing a lot higher levels of the amino acid. In general, tryptophan does have a “sleepy” affect on a person. Because this amino acid causes the levels of serotonin in the brain to rise, you will experience a calming effect when ingesting larger quantities of it, and thus tryptophan is often used as a sleep aid. As far as the turkey is concerned, however, it’s mostly everything else that’s ingested during the holidays that cause the drowsiness. Those carb-laden foods trigger the release of insulin, which in turn will make you feel drained. To get a better idea of how much tryptophan you’re ingesting regularly without any of those mythical effects, take a look at some foods and their levels of the amino acid.

  • Egg whites – 1 gram tryptophan per 100 grams
  • Cod – .70 grams tryptophan per 100 grams
  • Soybeans – .59 grams tryptophan per 100 grams
  • Cheddar cheese – .32 grams tryptophan per 100 grams
  • Turkey/chicken – both .24 grams tryptophan per 100 grams
  • Beef – .23 grams tryptophan per 100 grams

These are just a few food sources people are consuming regularly. So if turkey by itself would put you to sleep, you may be in a virtual coma after eating an egg white omelet. The truth of the matter is that, even in foods with higher tryptophan content, the concentration is simply too low to release that much serotonin to cause drowsiness. More than anything, it’s probably psychosomatic that people feel tired after eating turkey. It’s in their heads. Well, more likely, it’s in their stomachs, as being stuffed, especially with those carbs, will put you right out like a light.

At the end of the day, tryptophan is just another in a long line of essential compounds we need in order to thrive and to live healthy lives. Without these amino acids in our systems, you would have trouble with everything from energy levels and tissue repair (and growth) to fluid and chemical balance.

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