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Trytophan and Serotonin

 

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A neurotransmitter is a chemical substance that is produced in the brain and carries messages from one nerve cell to another.

It seems obvious that the brain is part of the body. And, yet, I think many people think of the brain as a closed system that operates separate from the body. We’ve probably all heard depression referred to as “a chemical imbalance” in the brain. We have chemicals in our brains that are supposed to somehow be “in balance”. It follows then that if we have a “chemical imbalance” we need to take chemicals to restore that balance. That is the idea behind taking anti-depressants – to correct the “chemical imbalance” in our brains.

What many people don’t realize is that nutrients are involved in creating neurotransmitters. For instance, when we eat turkey, vitamin B-6 along with the amino acid, tryptophan, work together to convert the tryptophan from the turkey into the neurotransmitter, serotonin, in the brain. Serotonin is known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter and is one of the major mood regulators. Since low levels of serotonin are linked to depression, most anti-depressants target serotonin with the goal of increasing available serotonin levels in the brain. We can increase the serotonin levels in our brains with the proper foods. In fact, anti-depressants do not increase serotonin in the brain. Anti-depressants work to make better use of what serotonin is already there. The only way to increase serotonin is by ingesting tryptophan.

Men typically have higher levels of serotonin than women, which could be one explanation for why women have higher rates of depression.

Foods high in tryptophan include:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Dairy products
  • Nuts
  • Wild Game and fowl
  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Lobster
  • Crab
  • Cod
  • Sardines
  • Beans
  • Eggs
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Wheat germ

Tryptophan converts to serotonin with the help of other nutrients, most notably vitamin B-6. Vitamin B-6 is also present in the foods that contain tryptophan. Tryptophan competes with other amino acids in protein-rich foods fighting for entry into the brain. Tryptophan will often get beat out by other amino acids and get left behind unless it is eaten together with starchy food. Whether this is because the starch causes the body to release insulin and the insulin aids in carrying the tryptophan from the bloodstream to the brain or whether it is because the starch itself or the fiber in the starchy food slows the digestive process giving the tryptophan more time to reach the brain is not entirely clear. But, if you eat foods containing tryptophan together with starchy carbohydrates, you are more likely to be able to utilize the tryptophan. Beans, like kidney beans or navy beans, are a good choice because they have both tryptophan and starch. You can also combine the protein foods containing tryptophan with starchy vegetables like corn, squash, potatoes, and yams or with whole grains.

Tryptophan-rich foods should be eaten with all 3 daily meals as well as 2 snacks. If you are consuming 60-80 grams of tryptophan-containing protein per day, you should be getting enough tryptophan for adequate serotonin levels. Nuts, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs are all good snack choices for tryptophan. Remember you need to have some starch with that so adding some carrot sticks, whole grain crackers or granola bars made without refined sugar make good combinations.

Another noteworthy thing about tryptophan is that a certain amount of it will convert to niacin (vitamin B-3) before it converts to serotonin. It is usually a small amount, approximately 3%. However, if you are deficient in niacin, tryptophan will meet the need for niacin first, which may not leave enough for adequate serotonin. Because niacin is also present in foods containing tryptophan, you should get these nutrients from food rather than taking them separately as supplements.

 

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