Tryptophan, Sleep, and Depression

Also See:
Carbohydrate Lowers Free Tryptophan
Gelatin > Whey
Serotonin, Fatigue, Training, and Performance
Gelatin, Glycine, and Metabolism
Whey, Tryptophan, & Serotonin
Melatonin Lowers Body Temperature
Serotonin and Melatonin Lower Progesterone

Tryptophan, an amino acid, is commonly used as a supplement for those with depression or sleep issues. When taking into context the vast web of physiology, this practice appears to be another slipperly slope of misconceptions.

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid for the growing child and young adult. However, tryptophan (and serotonin) rich tissues are indicative of decline with aging. For instance, white hair happens to be rich in tryptophan compared to hair of other colors.

As the precursor to the inflammatory mediators, serotonin and melatonin, tryptophan’s over consumption in the form of organ or muscle meats/whey protein/egg whites or as a supplement can be dangerous particularly during times of stress.

Serotonin, stress, aging
The body can convert tryptophan to vitamin B3 or serotonin, and during stressful times, aging, and malnutrition the preferred pathway is to serotonin. Serotonin does play a physiological role but when excess it becomes a stressor that has to be balanced by the systems that support energy metabolism. Despite its faulty moniker as the “feel good neurotransmitter,” serotonin is as anything but when in excess. Excess serotonin is a cellular excitant that is pro inflammatory and causes stress in all organs, including the brain.

Serotonin activates glycolysis (increases lactic acid); impairs circulation; stimulates parathyroid hormone, IL-6, and prolactin; lowers cellular ATP; interferes with oxidative metabolism; lowers body temperature; and can create hypoglycemia leading to high adrenaline and the inhibition of T4 to T3 conversion. If serotonin is high during the night, your sleep quality will be poor. Hibernating animals have high levels of serotonin and hibernation is not deep wave sleep; it’s actually more like being awake.

According to Ray Peat, serotonin’s excess is of major concern.

“Serotonin excess produces a broad range of harmful effects: Cancer, inflammation, fibrosis, neurological damage, shock, bronchoconstriction, and hypertension, for example.”

Given the above, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) commonly give to those with depression don’t seem like the right choice. In fact, sertonin antagonists (substances that work against serotonin’s effects) such as LSD seem to remedy depression. How can something that works in opposition to serotonin reduce depression if the paradigm is correct?

When a drug achieves the opposite affect that is was designed to achieve, wouldn’t that call into question its efficacy particularly when dealing with a topic as serious as depression and anxiety?

Better Sleep?
Melatonin is a another inflammatory mediator made from tryptophan; serotonin is the precursor to melatonin. It’s common for people use melatonin to improve sleep, but is that a good strategy?

Many health foods stores are now selling melatonin, to induce sleep and “prevent cancer.” They have taken some information out of context, and don’t realize how dangerous melatonin is. It makes the brain sluggish, causes sex organs to shrink, and damages immunity by shrinking the thymus gland. It suppresses thyroid and progesterone, and increases estrogen. It is the hormone of darkness and winter, and is produced in the pineal gland by any stress which increases adrenalin. Adequate sunlight suppresses the formation of melatonin. -Ray Peat, PhD

Darkness is stressful on our physiology and leads to a reduction in energy production and a higher incidence of depression (i.e. seasonal affective disorder). The rise of melatonin during the night is followed by the rise of cortisol and aldosterone, two other markers of inflammation. If darkness is seen as a stressor, and melatonin’s rise along with other inflammatory markers occurs during the night which serve to suppress mitochondrial energy production, this modifies melatonin’s status as the “sleep hormone” into another part of a nocturnal inflammatory cascade.

For adults, a reduction in the consumption of tryptophan rich foods can reduce production of excess serotonin and melatonin. The irony is by actually limiting tryptophan in the diet you can once again secure deep, restorative sleep because of less production of inflammatory substances and by better supporting optimal thyroid function, body temperature, and energy production.

Faulty Ideology
The current allopathic and functional health landscape needs some editing as what is being recommended when it comes to tryptophan, serotonin, and melatonin appears to be based on faulty principles. The isolation of amino acids in supplement form for use as therapies likely has consequences that go beyond our current understanding. The use of SSRIs, melatonin, and tryptophan and its derivatives for depression, anxiety, and sleep issues is a case where the physiological concepts don’t match the intended affects. It does equate to mega bucks for the pharmaceutical and supplement industry, however.

For adults, I’d be cautious with foods and supplements containing lots of tryptophan particularly when taken late in the day and maybe consider giving the impact of SSRIs on your body another look. A diet rich in balanced proteins – animal bone broths, gelatin, milk, potato, egg yolks, cheese – may help manage excess tryptophan. Ample light exposure can help reduce the stressful effects of melatonin and encourage the production of energy and progesterone.

If you’d like to learn more about a different approach to nutrition, FPS offers free nutrition consultations and a 12 week program for both local and distance clients. Please contact Rob for more details – or 818.926.5154

“Tryptophan, serotonin, and aging” by Ray Peat, PhD
“Serotonin, depression, and aggression: The problem of brain energy” by Ray Peat, PhD

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4 Responses

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  1. Leah Salmon says

    have you checked out the diet cure by Julian Ross, she promotes trytophan to help overcome food addiction and such like, how does that relate to this

  2. Team FPS says

    I am aware of Julia’s work. The information presented here is in opposition to such an approach.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Gelatin > Whey – Functional Performance Systems (FPS) linked to this post on December 12, 2010

    […] and eggs whites contains inflammatory amino acids such as cysteine, histadine, methionine, and trytophan in abundance which act as precursors to substances that promote stress, inflammation, and poor […]

  2. Paleo Diet News: Friday Link Love » Your source for Paleo Diet information linked to this post on March 16, 2012

    […] Tryptophan, Sleep, and Depression […]