Know Your Nutrients: Tryptophan

Tryptophan survival

Everyone growing up in the US should be familiar with that cozy feeling you get after thanksgiving dinner. Some people refer to it as the turkey coma, but there is actually a very important biochemical reason behind it. Turkey is one of the richest sources of tryptophan, an amino acid that is critical to one of the most important neurotransmitters in the brain and many other important functions. Does it belong in your emergency supplies?

Tryptophan and Brain Function

Tryptophan is the key raw material needed to produce serotonin, one of the most important chemicals in the brain. Serotonin is responsible for regulation of mood, appetite and sleep. Melatonin, the hormone that causes sleepiness and maintains sleep patterns, is also derived from serotonin. The chemical name for serotonin is actually 5-hydroxytryptamine (or 5-HT) deriving from the word tryptophan.

There is an interesting link between trytophan and B vitamins. The amino acid can be converted into vitamin B3 within the body and depending on B3 levels a small amount is usually converted. However in situations

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of B vitamin deficiency a larger amount will be used to prevent pellagra, the deficiency of B3 which can cause death if untreated.

The Danger of Deficiency

Due to serotonin’s importance in maintaining mood, low levels of dietary tryptophan have been linked to depression. The relationship between tryptophan and mood has led to tryptophan and 5-HTP being used as a natural cure to alleviate depression symptoms. In addition to depression, lack of the amino acid have been linked to anxiety, irritability, inability to concentrate and impulsiveness. Due to its connection with the hormone melatonin, sleep quality has also been seen to be disrupted in people who are deficient.

The applications to this on a survival situation are far reaching. Any sort of disaster is the definition of a stressful event. In order to cope with what is going on, even the well supplied brain may have difficulty maintaining balance. That is why it is of paramount importance to avoid anything that may put you in a state of being on edge already, which includes a deficiency in tryptophan. The consequences of irritability and impulsiveness could lead to bad decisions in the leadership of a group or just being plain tough to deal with.

Another big consequence to tryptophan depletion is that it creates the urge to binge eat carbohydrates. Stemming originally from studies on bulimics, it has been found to carry over to other parts of the population as well. I don’t need to explain why this would be a problem in a survival situation.

Finding the best sources of tryptophan

The thanksgiving dinner example from the beginning indicates one of the best forms of tryptophan aroung: poultry. Chicken seems to be just as good as turkey in this regard, other good sources include fish and red meat. Vegetarians or grain eaters may have a harder time getting a hold of the amino acid; it is difficult to find plant based protein and soy is one of the only significant sources of it.


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by JP Martin