Understand tryptophan and tryptophan targets in the Nutrient Explorer

What it is

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid.

What it does

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. You don’t really need to think about what each amino acid does – your body just needs enough of each amino acid to build the proteins it needs to build. 

Nonessential amino acids are amino acids your body can synthesize from other raw materials. You don’t need to consume nonessential amino acids in your diet, but most normal diets will contain plenty of nonessential amino acids.

Essential amino acids are amino acids your body can’t synthesize from other raw materials. So, you do need to consume essential amino acids in your diet.

Conditionally essential amino acids are amino acids your body can generally synthesize under most circumstances, though there are instances where it may not be able to (due to infancy, advanced age, liver disease, or certain other disease states).

As an essential amino acid, tryptophan must be consumed from dietary sources.

For more on the general effects of protein, refer to the article on protein.

Recommended intake

The recommended intake of tryptophan is 7mg per kilogram of body mass.

Likelihood of tracking completeness: Very low

Tryptophan is not a nutrient food manufacturers are required to disclose on nutrition labels. The vast majority of food manufacturers do not voluntarily list tryptophan content on nutrition labels, so most branded products in the MacroFactor database lack information on tryptophan. So, if you’d like to accurately track your tryptophan intake, you’ll need to make a point of mostly tracking “common foods,” which come from research-grade databases that have full nutrient reporting.

For more on when you can track using branded foods versus common foods when you’re trying to accurately monitor your intake of particular nutrients, you should check out this article.

Likelihood of insufficient intake: Moderate for vegans. Very low for non-vegans.

Insufficient intake of a single essential amino acid can have health consequences. The essential amino acid with the lowest intake relative to physiological needs is referred to as the limiting amino acid. The four most common limiting amino acids are lysine, methionine, threonine, and tryptophan. Lysine or threonine is likely to be the limiting amino acid for individuals who consume most of their total energy from cereal grains (like rice and wheat). Methionine is likely to be the limiting amino acid for individuals who consume most of their total energy from legumes (like beans, chickpeas, and lentils). Tryptophan is likely to be the limiting amino acid for individuals who consume most of their total energy from corn/maize.

Since tryptophan is a common limiting amino acid, it’s important to consume tryptophan-rich protein sources (basically anything but corn; legumes are a great choice) to negate the risk of a tryptophan deficiency, if you tend to mostly eat tryptophan-poor foods (like corn).

For more on nutrients with a greater likelihood of insufficient or excessive intake, you should check out this article.

Signs of deficiency/insufficiency

Tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin and melatonin, so the first sign of a tryptophan deficiency is typically either sleep or mood disturbances.

Good sources

Omnivores and vegetarians rarely need to worry about consuming adequate tryptophan, assuming their total protein intake is sufficient. Meat, eggs, and dairy products are generally rich in all of the essential and conditionally essential amino acids.

Among vegan sources of protein, spirulina, soy-based products, mycoprotein (like Quorn), watercress, crimini mushrooms, and alfalfa sprouts are excellent sources of tryptophan per unit of energy.

Learn more

If you’d like to learn more about micronutrients generally, there’s a five-part series on the MacroFactor website you might enjoy.

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