We all know how vital it is to eat enough protein, keep up the carbs and eat as many plants as we can. However, one essential nutrient that you might not be quite as au fait with is tryptophan. Here’s why it’s so important and how to increase your intake.
The pandemic, climate change, Love Island… there’s a lot that’s keeping us awake at night right now. In fact, as many as 16 million UK adults are suffering from sleepless nights, leading to increased levels of anxiety, depression, increased inflammation and cognitive impairment according to one study.
With the spotlight on health over the last 18 months, inflammation has been front and centre as a catalyst for a myriad of debilitating wellness woes such as fatigue, gut and digestion issues, joint pain, low immunity and skin complaints. While there are plenty of solutions floating around the health stratosphere, one that has proven to be effective in fighting inflammation as well as inducing a peaceful night’s sleep is having a high-tryptophan diet.
Although many tryptophan-rich foods are already healthy pantry staples, you may not be eating enough or incorporating them into your daily diet at the right time of day to feel the effects. We asked the experts how we can use foods high in tryptophan to get a good night’s kip and nip inflammation in the bud once and for all.
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What is tryptophan?
“Tryptophan is one of nine essential amino acids that the body cannot create itself,” explains Dr Kat Lederle, sleep therapist and author of Sleep Sense. Because of that, we’ve got to eat tryptophan-rich foods.
The nutrient is used to produce niacin (also known as vitamin B3 – responsible for stabilising mood, contributing to the effective absorption of fats and sugars, and inducing sleep), and it’s vital to keep our bodily functions on an even keel.
Health benefits of eating high tryptophan foods
Good sleep can help to reduce inflammation in the body. To go into a deeper, regenerative sleep, you need a readily available reserve of niacin and serotonin, integrative health and nutrition coach Karen Cummings-Palmer explains. Tryptophan is a building block of serotonin. She calls inflammation “the root of all disease”.
Think of your body as a show and tryptophan as the show’s producer coordinating with hormones and vitamins to make sure everyone is doing what they should be.
“What’s great about tryptophan for sleep is that it’s a building block for melatonin as well as serotonin,” Dr Lederle says. “The former is a signalling molecule used by the body clock (which sits in your brain) to let the body know when it’s time to sleep. This signal has to come in the mid-evening to prompt the body to shut down for the day.
“If you don’t consume enough tryptophan, there won’t be enough of that signalling molecule – leaving the body in a state of confusion, not knowing when to sleep (or be awake). It also helps to keep the mucosal layer of your intestines intact thereby preventing subsequent leaking into the body’s tissue. Tryptophan helps to reduce this inflammation and activates anti-inflammatory substances instead.”
How to eat more tryptophan
Ultimately, a balanced diet is the best way to make sure we’re getting good doses of tryptophan circulating in our bodies. Although powder supplements are available, Cummings-Palmer believes that food is a purer and more effective way to help restore healthy sleep patterns. “Tryptophan is most abundant in protein-rich foods and one of my favourite sources is turkey as it also comes with a healthy dose of collagen, is relatively low in calories and is really well tolerated by most people.”
She goes onto say that eggs are another great source of tryptophan: “Try a two-egg omelette with spinach or avocado for breakfast and boost the nutrition profile even further by adding mushrooms for vitamin D. Sustainably sourced canned tuna is another rich source but make sure you choose olive oil rather than brine-based for some additional good fats and antioxidants. Add cucumber – rich in silica which supports hair and skin – tomatoes that are rich in skin-protecting lycopene for fast food, superfood lunch that will boost your health.”
Cummings-Palmer points out that vegetarians and vegans can top up on tryptophan by snacking on nuts and seeds. Peanuts are a particularly good source, although she warns that they can be tough on the digestive system, “so limit your serving to a small handful and opt for raw rather than processed. You can sprinkle with a little sea salt and roast at home for added flavour.”
Timing is key for a good sleep
Like anything worth having, timing is everything. Before you start guzzling eggs like Arnie, Dr Lederle is quick to stress that a little trial and error could determine what’s best for you. “If you have a protein-rich, balanced diet, you would eat tryptophan-containing food across the day.”
Research has shown, however, that a tryptophan-rich cereal at breakfast can improve sleep efficiency in middle-aged and older adults whereas other studies have shown positive effects consuming it at breakfast and dinner time. As such, Dr Lederle suggests starting “by making sure you have tryptophan in your daily diet alongside carbohydrate-rich foods as this will increase insulin levels. As a result, other amino acids will be transported to the muscles leaving at least some of the transport systems in the brain available to tryptophan.”
Struggling to sleep? Cummings-Palmer suggests munching on a small bowl of oats topped with banana and pumpkin seeds an hour before bed to help with relaxation. “With the added benefit of magnesium in the seeds, you’ll be supporting the relaxation of your muscles as well as your mind.”
Try this tryptophan-rich recipe
Munch your way to effortless slumber and a healthy body with this easy recipe from Rob Hobson, registered nutritionist at Healthspan.
Sleep cashew nut and turmeric chai tonic
100g cashew nuts
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
3 cardamom pods (smashed)
2 tsp honey
Pinch of sea salt
Place the cashews and water in a blender and blitze.
Now put the liquid cashews, along with the ingredients in a small saucepan and whisk to combine.
Heat through gently (do not boil) for about five minutes so the flavours infuse well.
Serve in small cups – a cinnamon stick in each looks cute!
For more healthy recipes, check out the Strong Women Training Club.
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