Nutrient to Know: Tryptophan

You always hear about tryptophan around Thanksgiving time -- folks warn that that gorging on turkey (a well-known source for the nutrient) puts you in a "food coma." Is it really to blame for that post-dinner snooze?

Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast; Ina Garten

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

You always hear about tryptophan around Thanksgiving time. Folks warn that that getting too much turkey (one of the most well-known sources) puts you in a "food coma." Is it really to blame for that post-dinner snooze?
What Is It?

This specific amino acid (a.k.a. a building block for protein) is considered “essential,” which means your body can’t make it on its own -- you can only get it from food. All types of protein-rich foods are made of a combination of different amino acids. Tryptophan is important because it helps the body produce two must-haves: the B-vitamin niacin and the chemical serotonin. Like many other nutrients, supplements exist, but research has found these can cause some very dangerous side effects. So, as usual, stick to the safest version -- tryptophan found naturally in your food!

Why Is It Good For You?

Tryptophan is one way that our bodies can get niacin; plus, it's important for energy metabolism, our digestion and maintaining healthy skin.

What About That "Turkey Makes You Sleepy" Story?

That food myth has to do with tryptophan's help in forming serotonin, which is involved in sleep regulation, appetite control and mood. The reality is that you'd have to eat tryptophan alone and on an empty stomach (not likely on Thanksgiving) in order for it to make you feel sleepy. Because foods that contain tryptophan also contain other types of amino acids, that holiday turkey isn't what's making you tired. In fact, turkey's tryptophan content isn't even as high as it is in chicken and cheese.

The reality: Overeating, drinking alcohol and consuming a high-fat meal (which takes more time and energy to digest) are more likely the causes for that Thanksgiving afternoon nap.

Where Can I Find It?
Other than turkey, here are some of the major sources of tryptophan:
Peanut butter
Pumpkin (and pumpkin seeds)
See a lot of familiar Thanksgiving dishes lurking in that list?
Make the turkey in the photo above: Ina's Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast
Keep Reading

Next Up

Nutrient to Know: Quercetin

This lesser-known nutrient is becoming more mainstream. Find out if it’s plentiful in your daily diet.

Nutrient to Know: Thiamin

This water-soluble nutrient can be found in a variety of foods including some popular picnic fare. Here’s what you want to know about thiamin just in time for grilling season.

Nutrient to Know: Zeaxanthin

This antioxidant powerhouse helps to protect your vision. Are you getting enough in your diet?

Nutrient to Know: Potassium

Your muscles just wouldn’t be the same without this mineral. Most folks know there’s potassium in bananas, but that’s not the only place you can find this powerful electrolyte.

Nutrient to Know: Riboflavin

It’s found in everything from dairy products to vegetables, are you making smart choices to get enough of this energy boosting B-vitamin?

Nutrient to Know: Iron

Without iron in our diet we’d be in big trouble, but get too much from supplements and it can be toxic. Make sure you're getting the right amount.

Nutrient to Know: Vitamin A

Did you know vitamin A can be found in 2 major forms – each with their own special functions? Learn more about this “two-faced” nutrient.

Nutrient to Know: Lycopene

Find out why lycopene is good for you and which lycopene-rich foods pack the biggest antioxidant punch.