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Tryptophan – Friend or Foe?

Tryptophan – Friend or Foe?

With the holiday season upon us, many people will be overindulging in comfort foods during various events and get-togethers.

When this occurs, people often blame tryptophan (found in turkey) for that feeling of tiredness and relaxation that follows post stuffing of ones face, but, is it really the tryptophan that’s to blame?

In this week’s article, our Sports Scientist, Rudy Mawer breaks down the research on the hormone Tryptophan and explains the truth behind the myth.


While most people see protein and amino acids as just nutrients to help build muscle, the benefits actually extend into many aspects of health, disease, and daily functions.

Tryptophan is a prime example of this, being a key essential amino acid with many benefits. In this article, you will learn about Tryptophan and discover if it is actually the cause of tiredness and fatigue after a carb-heavy meal.

How Does Tryptophan Work & What Does it Do?

Also known as L-tryptophan, Tryptophan acts as a natural mood regulator to control your hormones and energy levels. It is for this reason that people take Tryptophan in supplement form to give them a boost, or at night, to aid in relaxation, improve sleep and possibly even to help burn more bodyfat.

As you can see, it has a number of benefits and uses. One of the particular benefits for your physique is Tryptophan’s role at night in Growth Hormone production, the key hormone that is responsible for metabolizing food, breaking down fat and for cellular repair.

Tryptophan is also a key byproduct of another hormone and the popular supplement called 5-HTP, which has a similar effect on the brain helping with relaxation, sleep, and feelings of well-being. It is also associated with the feeling of happiness because it increases serotonin levels, which is another reason Tryptophan is often blamed for the feeling of fatigue and tiredness when we eat carbs.

Tryptophan and 5-HTP work by signaling your brain and central nervous system. This sends messages around the entire body, including to your muscles. In turn, your mood state, energy levels, focus, mindset, and sleep will be affected. It’s for this reason that 5-HTP and Tryptophan are used as weight loss supplements because they increase your mood and have been shown to reduce cravings or binge eating. Additionally, 5-HTP and Tryptophan can even lower depression, with some research showing they are just as effective or even more effective than depression medication.

Other Benefits of Tryptophan

As Tryptophan can increase the brain’s serotonin levels, 5-HTP and L-tryptophan have plenty of research on them and could benefit you in the following areas:

  • Sleep issues, insomnia, and other sleep related problems,
  • Headaches and migraines,
  • Yo-yo dieting and binge eating,
  • Mood-related issues such as anxiety and depression,
  • Concentration and learning issues such as ADHD,
  • Fibromyalgia,
  • PMS and menopause.

Is Tryptophan to Blame?

As you can see, Tryptophan does play a role in mood and sleep and has a natural calming effect. However, it remains a myth that Tryptophan is the cause of the common feeling of fatigue or onset of tiredness when you eat a large meal such as at Thanksgiving.

The real reason for this is linked to your parasympathetic nervous system, which, when we consume large amounts of food at a meal, signals the rest of the body to slow down and reduce its processes, allowing for more focus on digestion and absorption.

Going one step further, scientists have shown that there is a specific area of the brain containing orexin neurons which are sensitive to high carb foods, or more specifically, their broken down form know as glucose / blood sugar. Ultimately, these neurons in the brain produce a specific enzyme called ‘orexin’ which controls and moderates our energy levels and wakefulness. As you can see, while it’s easy to assume and blame Tryptophan, it’s actually just along for the ride and does not cause the issue; if anything, you can see how it would be beneficial for your brain, mental state, mood and at night, relaxation/sleep.

Take Home Message

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that plays a key role in brain health, mood, energy, and even weight management.

Large amounts of food and carbohydrates signal the body to reduce its output in order to focus on digestion. This, combined with an increase in specific neurons in your brain, is the real reason you feel tired and relaxed after lots of food.

If you suffer from any brain/mood related disorders or binge eating, Tryptophan may actually be a great supplement for you to consider!

Author: Rudy Mawer, MS
International Celebrity Trainer, Sports Scientist

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