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Tryptophan Supplements: Benefits, Side Effects, and Usage

What is Tryptophan?

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is necessary for human life and health. It plays a critical role in the production of protein and vital brain chemicals like serotonin and melatonin.

Although tryptophan is found abundantly in many foods, tryptophan supplements have grown in popularity due to their added health and performance benefits.

Why Take Tryptophan Supplements?

There are several evidence-based reasons why tryptophan supplements may be beneficial:

Improves Sleep Quality

Tryptophan is needed to produce melatonin and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that regulate sleep-wake cycles. Studies show tryptophan supplements can lengthen sleep time, increase deep sleep stages, and improve overall sleep quality.

Lifts Mood and Reduces Anxiety/Depression

As a precursor to serotonin, tryptophan elevates mood, enhances well-being, and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. Tryptophan supplements have an antidepressant and anxiolytic effect.

Boosts Cognitive Performance

Higher tryptophan levels stimulate serotonin activity which improves learning, memory, focus, and concentration. Tryptophan may also help with age-related cognitive decline.

Increases Pain Tolerance

Tryptophan increases pain threshold by enhancing serotonin activity in the brain and central nervous system. Studies show tryptophan supplements decrease sensitivity to pain.

Aids Muscle Growth and Athletic Performance

Tryptophan is required for building new muscle proteins. It also speeds recovery by reducing exercise-induced muscle damage and soreness.

Promotes Weight Loss

By improving sleep and serotonin levels, tryptophan supplementation helps regulate appetite, cravings, and carbohydrate intake - leading to easier weight management.

Dosage Guidelines

The standard supplemental dosage of L-tryptophan ranges from 500-2000mg per day. Most studies use dosages of 1000-1500mg daily for therapeutic benefits.

It is best to start with 500mg daily and gradually increase over 2-4 weeks to assess your individual tolerance. Never exceed 2000mg per day without medical supervision.

Take tryptophan supplements 30-60 minutes before bedtime to promote better sleep. For mood and cognition benefits, tryptophan can be taken anytime during the day with food.

Safety and Side Effects

When taken appropriately, L-tryptophan supplements are generally safe and well tolerated. However, there are some potential side effects to be aware of:

  • Nausea, dizziness, headache
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
  • Excessive daytime drowsiness
  • Digestive issues like gas, bloating, diarrhea

In rare cases, very high doses of tryptophan may cause more severe side effects like heart palpitations, muscle spasms, and shortness of breath. Start with low doses and increase slowly.

Use caution when combining tryptophan supplements with antidepressants like SSRIs, as it may lead to dangerously high serotonin levels (serotonin syndrome). Consult your doctor first if on such medications.

Contraindications and Warnings

Avoid tryptophan supplements if you:

  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Have liver or kidney disease
  • Suffer from bipolar disorder
  • Have a hormone sensitive condition
  • Take sedatives or sleep medications

Tryptophan is likely safe for children and adolescents when taken short-term under medical supervision. However, long-term safety cannot be assured.

In the 1980s, contaminated L-tryptophan supplements from a single manufacturer caused a serious outbreak of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). Today's tryptophan supplements go through stringent third-party testing to ensure purity and prevent this side effect.

Finding Quality Tryptophan Supplements

When purchasing tryptophan supplements, only buy products that:

  • Use L-tryptophan, not D/DL forms
  • Are free of unnecessary fillers and additives
  • Come from a reputable, transparent manufacturer
  • Have third-party testing for identity, purity, and quality
  • Use vegetarian capsules when possible
  • Are packaged in light-blocking containers

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take for tryptophan to work?

Most people notice the effects of tryptophan supplements within 30-60 minutes if taken on an empty stomach. Benefits are usually felt more gradually over several weeks with continued daily supplementation.

When should I take tryptophan?

Take tryptophan about 30-60 minutes before bedtime if using it as a sleep aid. For other benefits, tryptophan supplements can be taken anytime during the day alongside food.

Can I take tryptophan with antidepressants?

It's best to consult your doctor before combining tryptophan with antidepressants like SSRIs. Tryptophan may increase serotonin too much when paired with these medications, raising the risk of serotonin syndrome.

Is tryptophan safe long-term?

There is no evidence that tryptophan supplementation is unsafe for long-term use, provided recommended dosages are followed. However, periodic breaks from usage are still advised.

What foods contain tryptophan?

Foods highest in tryptophan include turkey, chicken, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt, beans, lentils, sesame seeds, almonds, and spirulina. Tryptophan is found abundantly in most protein-rich foods.

Can I take tryptophan if I'm pregnant?

Tryptophan supplements are not recommended during pregnancy due to lack of safety research. Always consult your obstetrician before taking any new supplements while pregnant.

How much tryptophan should I take for sleep?

Doses of 1000-1500mg taken 30-60 minutes before bedtime are generally recommended for improving sleep quality and duration. Start low with 500mg and increase as tolerated.

What is the difference between tryptophan and 5-HTP?

5-HTP is a byproduct of tryptophan. While both increase serotonin, tryptophan is considered safer and better studied. However, 5-HTP may work faster for some individuals.

Are there withdrawal symptoms if I stop tryptophan?

There is minimal risk of withdrawal symptoms if you abruptly stop taking tryptophan supplements. However, mood and sleep problems may reoccur if tryptophan was helping manage those issues.

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