Tryptophan in turkey is not what makes you sleepy after your feast | MCU Times

Tryptophan in turkey is not what makes you sleepy after your feast

There’s the turkey / drowsiness myth: Eating lots of juicy turkey meat makes people feel tired because it contains an amino acid called tryptophan. This molecule travels into the brain, where it is converted into a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which in turn is converted into a hormone called melatonin. Voila! Sleepiness.

But science and the Internet agree: It’s not the turkey’s tryptophan that is to blame for your nap after the party. All protein sources, and even vegetables, contain some tryptophan; Turkey is not at all special in this regard.

This tryptophan / mood compound is an area of ​​ongoing research. And while some are fascinated by the potential of tryptophan, it is not clear if the excitement is justified.

Looking for a tryptophan link to mood

There is some scientific evidence that eating tryptophan can change your mood.

For example, back in 2000, researchers found that when people ate an isolated protein that was very high in tryptophan, felt less stress while doing math problems.
However, placebo-controlled clinical trials have generally not shown much of a correlation. A few studies have found that supplemented with pure tryptophan gave little or no benefit to people with depression. Some studies have even looked at what happens when you remove tryptophan from people’s dietary habits, but also found little or no effect.

So what explains the mixed results?

Serotonin itself still holds mysteries

In parallel with human studies, the biology of tryptophan has been thoroughly studied in rodents. Research in the early 1970s showed that taking Tryptophan supplements can boost serotonin, a neurotransmitter historically associated with feelings of well-being and happiness.
Since then, scientists have learned a lot of interesting facts about serotonin. There are e.g. 14 separate receptors for serotonin, and they are found everywhere in the brain.
Researchers have learned how to affect this system with drugs, but not with great precision. For example, drugs such as the antidepressant selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – better known as SSRIs – do not target individual receptors, and they are not limited to specific areas of the brain. Instead, SSRIs are, they most famous of them is Prozac, directly boosted serotonin everywhere.

This non-specificity is therefore, in my opinion, hard to believe SSRIs work at all. Here’s an analogy: Let’s say you’re Jeff Bezos and you want to increase Amazon’s revenue by speeding up your deliveries. So you decide to screw up all delivery vehicles. From now on, each truck will increase its speed by 5%. It could be a logistical stroke of genius, or it could, perhaps more likely, end in chaos. Like increasing serotonin throughout the brain, this blunt approach may not be ideal.

Analogies aside whether SSRIs affect people’s moods are an experimental question, and some research has supported the idea that these drugs work. But especially lately, their effectiveness come under intense study. Some recent analyzes cite 30 years of study and questions the clinical value of SSRIs, while others claim that these drugs improve the symptoms of depression.
It is complicated and there is still some disagreement, but most psychiatrists agree that SSRIs are not effective for everyone. These drugs are not psychiatric cures.

More chemical fine-tuning for mood

In light of all this, I have often seen myself asking if psychiatric researchers needed to 73 studies looks at whether tryptophan depletion is affecting mood.

When it comes to understanding the connections between gut bacteria and the brain, or the greater challenge of understanding and treating mental illness, should researchers really still think about tryptophan?

It seems to be true that, like SSRIs, tryptophan boosts has a broad effect on serotonin. It is certainly possible that boosting serotonin may affect mood and that enhancing tryptophan may therefore do the same. But it is also possible that manipulating something as complicated as human emotions requires a little more nuance.
Psychiatric research has long moved away from the idea that your brain is a bag of chemicals; modern neuroscientists are asking for a little more specificity. From this perspective, I am skeptical of the idea that tryptophan is the antidepressant that psychiatry needs. Not only has experimental research found rather weak results, but the theory itself is not very convincing.

Serotonin, which is apparently full of psychiatric possibilities, has long fascinated psychiatric researchers. But what the last half century seems to have shown is that the neuroscience of human emotion is not simple. To promote lasting change in mental health, scientists may need a little more reverence for the complex emotional beings that we all are.

So no, a big turkey dinner, as full of delicious tryptophans as it may be, will probably not be the neurochemical driving force for your Thanksgiving mood.

Andrew Neff is an adjunct faculty member in psychology at Rochester University in New York. Neff does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations other than their academic appointment.


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