It’s Time for Turkey and Tryptophan

Every year after the traditional Norwegian-Lutheran Thanksgiving feast with all the fixings available in the Midwest (and some imported), my father, uncle and grandfathers retired to the nearest available semi-horizontal space and turned on the TV to watch the Detroit Lions play whatever hapless team they drew playing football on the holiday. Without fail, sometime well before halftime, those same die-hard NFL fans would be vigorously and noisily sound asleep. Mom and the Grandmas were left in the kitchen doing this year’s version of the passive-aggressive dance amidst the clearing and cleaning up. My sister and I, no dummies, and given our hometown of Green Bay, expressed early and enthusiastic support for NFL Football. We thought the men had stumbled on to a great gig, but it turns out it might have just been the TURKEY! (Dark meat as the story goes)


Tryptophan is an essential amino acid with several important purposes including maintaining nitrogen balance in adults, supporting infant growth and development and the creation of niacin. Niacin is the essential building block in the creation of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. A kind of serotonin precursor. Naturally occurring tryptophan is found in a variety of foods generally those high in protein like chicken, eggs, cheese, fish, milk, peanuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds. Tofu, chocolate (!) and of course, turkey. In order to convert tryptophan to niacin and on to serotonin, the body needs a healthy diet including plenty of iron, Vitamins B-6 and B-2.

Side effects of too much tryptophan include heartburn, stomach aches, diarrhea, belching, nausea/vomiting and loss of appetite. Some also experience headaches, dry mouth and sexual dysfunction. The most serious side effects are dramatic drowsiness, lightheadedness, blurred vision and muscle fatigue. These are immediate red flags to halt the consumption of tryptophan laden foods. Some people ingest tryptophan supplements either prescribed or over the counter. They are available to treat conditions like insomnia, sleep apnea and nicotine cessation but can result in additional risk factors like rashes, cramping and difficulty breathing. Too much tryptophan supplement will increase serotonin production which if combined with citalopram, fluoxetine or sertraline can contradict each other. Supplements of this type are not considered safe for pregnant or nursing women or those with kidney or liver disease. The benefits of naturally occurring tryptophan from foods result in increase in niacin production, which in turn leads to an increase of serotonin.

Serotonin AKA ‘The Happy Chemical”

Serotonin is the key hormone in mood stabilization, feelings of well-being and even happiness. Its impact is felt throughout the body and aids in sleep, eating and digestion, anxiety and the ability for brain cells to communicate with other nervous system cells. Too little is thought to contribute to depression, too much can cause excessive nerve energy depletion leading to exhaustion, inflammation and loss of libido.

Serotonin is located in 3 main areas of the body.

  • Gastro-Intestinal Tract (GI); where it helps regulate bowel function and movements and production can be influenced by nausea and vomiting. (There is a school of research between vomiting and eating disorders)
  • Brain: where it helps stimulate areas of the brain that regulate sleep and wakefulness (circadian rhythms). It behaves as a natural emotional stabilizer, keeping you focused, balanced, calm and happier. It also appears to impact your harm assessment/avoidance mechanisms which can lead to worrying, pessimism, fearfulness, doubtfulness and shyness.
  • Blood Platelets: Serotonin is released in tiny capillaries and arteries to help heal wounds by causing them to narrow and increase clotting. Of note, too much serotonin can weaken bone strength contributing to osteoporosis.

Serotonin Syndrome

This is equated with high levels in the body. In its mild form it can produce shivering, sweating, restlessness, twitching, confusion and diarrhea. More sever symptoms include fever, loss of consciousness and seizures. This syndrome can happen to anyone but is often attributed to people increasing their prescribed serotonin boosters on their own or combining several of the same. Adding herbal or other dietary supplements or illegal drugs can also bring this on. If there is any question it is wise to ask your physician or other health care professional.

  • Could my medication use or abuse be causing these symptoms?
  • Are my serotonin levels too high or low?
  • Could my levels be affecting any other health aspects?

Thankfully, the milder forms often disappear within a day of stopping the medications or with the introduction of a serotonin blocker.

Foods and Moods

It is not ‘you are what you eat’, rather it is ‘you FEEL what you eat’

Your brain is on call 24/7 just like many busy health care professionals around the globe and it requires a constant fuel source. The fuel is food which affects the structure and function of your brain and mood. Think of your brain as a beloved red Ferrari which deserves premium fuel. Foods rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants protect your body from oxidative stress, which are those free radicals people talk about. Free radicals are the waste produced when your body uses oxygen, and this oxidative stress can cause damage on a cellular level. Anything less than premium fuel can and will affect brain and body performance. Multiple studies have shown the correlation between diets high in processed sugars and foods to impaired brain and body function and worsening of mood disorders like depression. Your GI tract is lined with millions of neurons where 95% of your serotonin is produced. Not only does your GI tract do its digestive job, but it also helps guide your emotions.

When you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner this year, however that looks in 2020, know that the turkey eaten  makes mothers happy, makes people feel stuffed and drowsy, but also provides a whole slew of tryptophan benefits.

Thanksgiving is a perfect time to stop and reflect on all the things for which we are grateful. The team at NHS Solutions is grateful for our amazing interim healthcare leaders, hospital clients, and vendors as we continue to work together with creativity and flexibility. We value each and every one of you and wish you bon appetit.

Enjoy your catnap!




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