L-tryptophan is one of the eight essential amino acids, one of the building blocks of protein. It is precursor to serotonin, which is a brain chemical that elevates mood.
It is a little known but useful prescription for insomnia, including the sleep disorders of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, grief reactions, PMS and menopause. It can also be used as part of a treatment program for migraines, chronic pain and even the tremors of Parkinsons disease. In one small French study, of 20 people with severe trembling uncontrolled by the usual drugs, 11 had the tremors controlled by 10 grams of tryptophan daily.
Effective treatment for depression
Tryptophan can be used in treating depression, either by itself or in combination with antidepressant drugs like Prozac where it counters the insomnia side effect and prevents the need for increasing the dosage.
Dr. Anthony Levitt, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Nutritional Sciences at University of Toronto, refers to evidence, including his own research, that shows that 55 to 60% of depressed patients who fail to respond to initial treatment with two commonly prescribed types of antidepressants improve with the addition of tryptophan.
L-tryptophan combines the sleep-inducing activity with a nearly innocuous side effect profile. says Levitt.
Tryptophan and women's health
Dr. Susan Steinburg, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal recently completed a controlled double blind study comparing 40 women using 2,000 mg of tryptophan three times a day (from day 14 through to the first three days of the period) for PMS compared to 40 who did not take tryptophan. The study, published in Biological Psychiatry in 1999, showed that tryptophan provided significant relief of symptoms of depression, irritability and mood swings. Women who were particularly helped by tryptophan were those that at baseline had marital problems, or an increased number of negative life events.
Is is safe?
Some doctors are still nervous about prescribing tryptophan. In November 1989, the FDA recalled all tryptophan from the health food stores due to a serious illness and fatalities induced by one contaminated batch of tryptophan. One Japanese company that was using genetically engineered bacteria to produce the tryptophan manufactured all of the contaminated tryptophan.
Biologist Dr. John Fagan says this is one of the best examples of genetic engineering giving rise to unanticipated allergens and toxins. He cites a 1990 study published in Science magazine that confirmed that the tryptophan produced by the bacteria were contaminated by a novel amino acid not present in tryptophan produced by other methods.
For unknown reasons L-tryptophan was never allowed back in the market in the United States. Some cynics have suggested that this paved the way for the domination of the depression market by Prozac and its cousins.
Currently in Canada, one company, ICN Canada, manufactures all prescription tryptophan. This companys product has never been associated with any problem. The cost is about $1.00 per 1,000 mg tablet and is covered by some drug plans. The usual dosage of tryptophan for insomnia ranges from 500 mg to 4,000 mg taken one hour before bedtime.
Dosages and availability
It is best not to take tryptophan with protein, which competes with tryptophan for absorption, but it can be taken with a carbohydrate snack. Vitamin B6 and magnesium enhance the effect of tryptophan. Tryptophan can also be combined with the B vitamin, niacinamide, for chronic pain or depression. M.I.T. researcher Dr. Judith Wurtman, author of The Serotonin Solution, found that a high carbohydrate diet increased the production of serotonin and helped get tryptophan to the brain.
Tryptophan should not be taken by people who have hepatitis or other liver disease or by pregnant women.
In the US, tryptophan is available by prescription from compounding pharmacists. An alternative to tryptophan known as 5-hydroxy-tryptophan or 5-HTP (50 mg of 5-hydroxy-tryptophan equals 500 mg tryptophan) is available without a prescription. In the body, tryptophan is converted to 5-HTP and ultimately to serotonin. Well-known naturopathic doctor and educator Dr. Michael Murray has written a book on the many uses of 5-HTP called The Natural Way to Overcome Depression, Obesity and Insomnia (Bantam, 1998).
TIP: Tryptophan is a safe alternative for insomnia of all kinds. Many drug plans will cover this very useful supplement if a doctor prescribes it.