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Shepherd’s Dream Healthy Sleep Series: Tryptophan and Serotonin

Shepherd’s Dream Healthy Sleep Series: Tryptophan and Serotonin×-627-px-scaled.jpg

For the second installment of our Healthy Sleep Series, we’re looking at the amino acid tryptophan and its intimate relationship with a key neurotransmitter governing our well-being—serotonin.

Serotonin—The Happiness Factor

The road to wellness leads straight to serotonin: feeling energetic, fewer aches and pains, healthy aging, and—of course!—restful sleep. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known to contribute to our general sense of happiness. Surprisingly, there’s evidence to suggest that the majority of our serotonin may be made in our digestive tract. This is leading many researchers to pay close attention to the roles diet and gut health play in serotonin production.

Serotonin’s role in sleep is complex and not fully understood, though it appears to be involved in both sleep and wakefulness cycles. Many modern lifestyle factors negatively affect our serotonin balance, including frequent travel, erratic sleep, and chronic stress. 

Serotonin production is also dependent upon the presence of tryptophan.

Tryptophan—The Precursor

In order to give our body the best opportunity to produce healthy serotonin, we need tryptophan, an amino acid, in our system. Because tryptophan is an essential amino acid, that means it cannot be produced naturally by our bodies and must be obtained through our diet.

Tryptophan is converted into 5-HTP on its way to becoming serotonin. Both tryptophan and 5-HTP are popular supplements for various symptoms such as insomnia, depression, and fatigue.  


As we mentioned in the Healthy Sleep Series opener, anytime we attempt to tweak our biochemistry, we discover it’s intricately interconnected with everything else. And this appears to be especially true with supplementation for serotonin.

While supplementation with tryptophan and 5-HTP is widely regarded as safe, it’s not without potential drawbacks and complications. Both have been linked to a concerning condition called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) characterized by sudden and severe shortness of breath, muscle aches and spasms, and an itchy skin rash. It’s not known whether a contaminant in the supplements or whether supplementation itself is responsible. 

In addition, too much serotonin is not a good thing, leading to what’s called serotonin syndrome. This often occurs when medications and/or supplements that increase serotonin are combined. So what can we do?

Lifestyle Hacks for Tryptophan & Serotonin

Luckily, nature once again provides—many healthy foods contain tryptophan! And other tried-and-true wellness favorites help boost tryptophan and serotonin naturally as well. 

  • Exercise. Another great reason to move our bodies! Exercise releases tryptophan into the bloodstream while reducing the levels of other amino acids that can block tryptophan absorption.
  • Natural light. We learned about this with melatonin as well. Our sleep cycles are intimately connected to day and night, so receiving direct natural light helps regulate our body’s sleep processes. If you live where natural light is hard to come by during the winter months, try a light box.
  • Healthy diet. Easy enough, right? Well…it’s not quite that simple. Certain foods appear to decrease tryptophan’s effectiveness. Processed foods with their inflammatory fats, highly refined carbohydrates, and sugar content can interfere with tryptophan’s function in the body, preventing it from getting where it needs to go. 

A Serotonin-Friendly Diet

We’ve all heard the jokes about turkey and tryptophan…and they’re true! But many other readily available, healthy foods contain tryptophan. Eating tryptophan for better serotonin levels isn’t as straight-forward as eating for melatonin. A key to getting tryptophan into the brain where it’s needed is to consume tryptophan-containing foods with healthy carbohydrates such as rice or oats. Many of these foods are also on the list for melatonin—bonus!

  1. Eggs— Be sure to get the yolks! Affordable, convenient and versatile, eggs are rich in tryptophan.
  2. Tofu— Many soy products make excellent tryptophan choices for vegetarians and vegans, and tofu can magically be substituted for just about any protein. Just make sure to get it organic and GMO free.
  3. Pineapple— Who knew?! Pineapple contains melatonin, serotonin, AND tryptophan. Get tropical with your before-bed dessert options. 
  4. Nuts & Seeds— Pick your faves, because they all contain some tryptophan. Pistachios and almonds are also melatonin powerhouses if you’d like an extra sleepy boost. 
  5. Cheese— Mmm…cheese is a delicious and indulgent source. Mozzarella, parmesan, and Swiss rank highest in tryptophan content.
  6. Salmon— Amongst its many other benefits, like Omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins, salmon gives us tryptophan.
  7. Kiwi— The little fuzzy fruit is full of serotonin and other nutrients, like Vitamin C which helps reduce cortisol levels. Check out the next post in our Healthy Sleep Series for more on that!
  8. Turkey— No tryptophan list would be complete without it. Dreamy comas aren’t just for the post-holiday couch anymore!  

Stay tuned for the next installment of our Healthy Sleep Series in which we explore the role of cortisol, a hormone with a major role in stress and sleep. 

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