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What is tryptophan, one of the essential amino acids, and what is it for?


What it is   Where it is  Use in supplements  Risks and contraindications

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, which means that it cannot be synthesized by the human body and must therefore be introduced through the diet or food supplements. Tryptophan is essential for the proper functioning of our body. In fact, in addition to participating in protein synthesis, this molecule is among the precursors of serotonin and nicotinic acid, better known as niacin or vitamin B3.

What is 

Tryptophan, like the other essential amino acids, belongs to the group of proteinogenic amino acids, i.e. those used by our body for the construction of proteins.

This substance in particular is involved in numerous synthesis processes which are very important for the correct functioning of our body, such as for example the creation of serotonin, melatonin and niacin: 

  • Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which is known to play an important role in regulating mood and sleep. In addition to this, the molecule performs functions of regulating intestinal motility and has contractile effects on large blood vessels.
  • Melatonin is a neurhormone synthesized in the absence of light by the pineal gland, located at the base of the brain. This regulates the wake-sleep cycle in humans and other vertebrates, making us want to sleep when the sun goes down. In clinical and supplemental settings, it is used to treat cases of insomnia in children and adults.
  • Niacin, also called vitamin B3 or vitamin PP, is a vitamin of great importance for our health: the deficiency or malabsorption of this substance is the main cause of pellagra, a serious pathology with neurological consequences, at the level of the gastrointestinal tract and skin.

Where is it

Tryptophan is naturally present in good quantities in a large selection of consumer foods, such as dairy products, soy and sesame seeds, meat, cod, salmon, soybeans, dates, chocolate and many others .

The highest concentration of tryptophan is found in dehydrated egg white, which contains an average of one gram for each centner of grams consumed.

Tryptophan is also taken as a supplement in powder, capsule, or functional chewing gum.

Use in supplements

The intake of tryptophan in supplements is closely linked to the role of this essential amino acid as a precursor of serotonin and melatonin. For this reason, it is often proposed in combination with natural calming extracts such as lemon balm and skullcap to help lower stress levels, as well as counteract the risk of insomnia and promote higher quality of sleep.

Risks and contraindications

Although tryptophan is essential for us, in some contexts and dosages its intake can lead to even serious side effects. For example, those taking some types of antidepressants, such as SSRIs and MAOIs, should be careful when taking tryptophan in the form of a dietary supplement, as this interaction could lead to serotonin syndrome , or serotonin intoxication.

In most cases, even in the case of tryptophan abuse, the consequences are milder, ranging from nausea to diarrhea, headaches, or dry mouth.