A diet rich in foods with high tryptophan is helpful for sleep because tryptophan converts to serotonin, which further converts to melatonin. Both serotonin and melatonin are crucial for a good night’s sleep.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid found in high-protein foods. The most well-known food with high tryptophan is turkey. We often think that after eating the Thanksgiving meal we get sleepy thanks to the turkey, but actually this is much more likely due to the carb overload.
The truth is, turkey is not much different in its tryptophan content than chicken, beef, or salmon, for example.
Why do we get sleepy after the Thanksgiving meal?
Since the Thanksgiving meal tends to make us groggy and sleepy, perhaps we should eat like this all the time? 🙂 It sounds delicious, but this is not the best idea.
The reason we get sleepy after the Thanksgiving meal is due to the sheer amount of carbs we ingest. Between the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, marshmallows, stuffing, cornbread, etc. — well, no wonder we have coined the term “Thanksgiving coma.”
These are all high-glycemic foods, which spike the blood sugar. When the blood sugar goes high, the hormone insulin comes along to take the blood sugar and put it in the cell.
What happens is that after eating this meal, you have a fair amount of tryptophan in your body. Plus, the high amounts of insulin make the tryptophan more bioavailable to the brain, and then of course you will feel groggy and sleepy.
Eating too many foods with high glycemic content will produce a spike in your blood sugar, followed by a big drop in blood sugar about 4 hours after eating. Suddenly you need to eat again, usually craving more sugar (or carbs). If this happens after you’ve fallen asleep, it will wake you up and it will be hard to go back to sleep.
Plus, some people have food sensitivities that they are unaware of. For example, gluten sensitivity can cause sleepiness. That was my main symptom before I got off gluten! Unfortunately what happens typically is that you get sleepy when you want to be up and then can’t sleep well at night.
Which foods with high tryptophan help sleep?
Since tryptophan is important for sleep, you may wonder which foods could help.
As I have mentioned, animal protein foods such as chicken, turkey, beef, or salmon have about the same amount of tryptophan.
The only problem with tryptophan derived from animal protein is that those foods are also rich in other amino acids. These amino acids compete for absorption, and tryptophan doesn’t win that competition very often. So even though there is a great amount of tryptophan in these foods, the tryptophan is not as absorbable.
However, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cashews, walnuts, oats, brown rice, quinoa, beans, potatoes, pineapple, and bananas are some examples of the foods that contain a good amount of tryptophan and are more easily absorbable. The idea is not to overload your dinner with these foods, but rather to introduce one or two in all your meals throughout the day.
Also, eggs (particularly egg whites) are certainly high in tryptophan as well, along with the power food spirulina, a green-blue algae.
The combination of protein and carbs has to be just right since we don’t want to cause blood sugar issues, which can cause insomnia. Read more here about blood sugar issues and sleep troubles. This is a common issue in my patients.
Should I take tryptophan supplements for better sleep?
If it’s good to eat foods with high tryptophan for better sleep, perhaps you should supplement with tryptophan? No, that is a recommendation I rarely make for my patients because we find that when tryptophan is taken in supplement form, while it can be helpful temporarily, after a while some people develop more sleep issues.
This is because as the tryptophan breaks down, it can go more into this pathway called the kynurenine pathway. When this is elevated it shows neuroinflammation, which is not good for trying to get peaceful sleep.
Also, general inflammation in itself can cause the body to metabolize tryptophan more through this pathway. This, combined with low serotonin, can make it very hard for people to sleep well at night.
If serotonin is indeed low (which again is made from tryptophan), we want to look for the root cause of why this is happening and meanwhile supplement with 5 HTP, which helps with the serotonin levels. Talk to your doctor if you’re considering 5 HTP supplementation and are already taking SSRIs medications, as it may not be safe due to increased risk of serotonin storm.
There are many more causes of low serotonin than just not eating enough tryptophan, such as vitamin deficiencies and gut inflammation (95% of the serotonin is made in the gut).
Your safest bet is to start looking at your diet. Make sure you consume foods with high tryptophan every day and maintain a healthy blood sugar (ups and downs in blood sugar are highly inflammatory), and if you need additional support I am here for you. Simply reach out to me by making an appointment for a free consultation or a session (local or via telemedicine)