During the last year I have experimented with ways to help me deal with my depression. Since my depressive symptoms are severe medication was an option that I felt was necessary. From earlier experience I am firmly not a big fan of psycho drugs. Hence I have been travelling roads that are not well worn and a bit experimental. Here are my experiences with tryptophan. There will be quite a bit of physiology involved in this. I tried to put it into terms that hopefully will make sense to you even if you have no degree in the field. Sometimes physiology looks really random and out of the blue so I hope this works 😀
Let’s get the basics down first. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid which is not very soluble in water. What means all this you ask? Let me be your science guide! In all living beings there are proteins, which built significant parts of the body. In most living being every protein is built by a combination of 20 different amino acids. Tryptophan is one of the 20 amino acids.
So what do these weird amino acids do inside of us? Wait acid?! Are they poisonous?? No they are not. Someone decided to run with a funny name, consider yourself pranked ;). They are the building blocks with which enzymes and proteins are built. So they are teeny tiny building blocks of who we are. A little like mortar is used to build a house maybe. Enzymes in turn are responsible for almost everything in our bodies. Varying things like digesting, building cells and helping us move our muscles. So enzymes are important and without the building blocks we could not build enzymes and would be royally screwed. Just like houses without mortar have a tendency to be blown away by big bad wolves. Ask the three little pigs, they will tell you all about it. 😉
Some of the amino acids we can build within our body. Funnily enough our intelligent designer still deemed it a good idea to only make eleven out of the 20 amino acids buildable. (Did I mention physiology is really random sometimes?) These eleven we can build with what our all knowing body finds in food. That’s the general idea of food: to give you energy and to build and maintain your substance. The other nine amino acids (our tryptophan among them) we have to get into our body ready made as we can not build them ourselves. How do we do that? Food! Again. Other formerly living things (plants, fungi, animals, bacteria…) have the same building blocks as we have, hence we can take these nine amino acids from eating and digesting organisms who know how to make them. Your super smart digestive system transports all the nine amino acids you need from food to the bloodstream.
If you are short on one of these amino acids you can not build certain proteins. In such cases you normally develop a craving for a certain food. The again seemingly randomly grouped together foods bananas, chocolate and cashew nuts for example are rich in tryptophan. So if you lack tryptophan you might really really REALLY want to eat these foods. (It’s one of the reasons why chocolate is comfort food after all: rich in the amino acids which helps combating depression.) Normally we get our amino acids just fine and are not short of any amino acid…
Until we are. Else I wouldn’t be writing about supplementation of them. Tryptophan is used for much more than just building enzymes, because when is science ever simple? So tryptophan can also be modified a little (by an enzyme!). Then it is called . Serotonin is a very busy little molecule. For example it carries messages from one brain cell to another. One of the many messages it carries is: “don’t worry, be happy! :)” There we finally understand what tryptophan has to do with Depression:
Too little tryptophan -> too little serotonin -> too little “don’t be happy, worry!” -> 😦
So why don’t we give depressed people heaps of serotonin? Well two reasons. First, serotonin IS a very busy molecule (and physiology is random). About 9 out 10 serotonin molecules are busy regulating our bowel movement. I’m going to assume nothing is wrong with most depressed peoples bowel movement so … we’d waste 90% of our efforts on the wrong target. We need to make sure we only have more serotonin where we need it.
Second problem: assume we’d get to tell serotonin where to go (the brain), it still won’t work. And here our physiology gets so random I thought it might be more understandable if I wrote a little story about it.
Because our brains are very special organs. They have a LOT of bodyguards employed, that look at every single molecule that wants to enter. And there is no faking your ID for serotonin. The orders of the almighty brain say: I take tryptophan to make my own serotonin, I don’t accept serotonin. (Essentially they go all Alastor ‘Mad Eye’ Moody: it is so paranoid, it only accepts serotonin it prepared itself. Constant Vigilance, Potter!) So the bodyguards escort serotonin back to the blood stream where it becomes depressed itself and decides to instigate a revolution in your bowel… Or maybe not 😉
Anyhow serotonin does not get in. Sooo what do we do? The brain lacks serotonin and depression runs rampant but the brain does not detect the too low serotonin levels or depression. We need to trick the brains then. Nothing simpler than that. Just as easy as making Mad Eye laugh about a halloween prank! Ok so the trick is this: the brain says it accepts tryptophan to make its own serotonin. Well there we go, we give the brain more tryptophan. Sounds simple right? Right? Wrong!
Remember tryptophan is a very busy amino acid as well. So we need to ensure it is not used up elsewhere and we need to bribe the bodyguards a little. Why?? Well, they accept tryptophan in, yes, but its like the little nerd no one wants to have in their club but they have no good reason to turn them down. Except… Oh wait! There all the other amino acids which are VIPs. Of course the VIPs get in before tryptophan does. Thus tryptophan is made to wait until all the VIP amino acids are in. There are 4 VIP amino acids preferred over tryptophan.
If you eat or drink anything enriched with tryptophan (chocolate, soy milk, bananas, cashews) there will be other amino acids no matter what you do. Not as many, but your tryptophan still wait in that line. Of course now there are a few more nerds and less VIPs so more tryptophan will be transported into the brain. But when you are depressed it’s still not working well enough.
So how does our little nerd tryptophan get to the awesome party in your brain without getting beat up? Simple we ensure there is no one except tryptophan showing up. By taking pure tryptophan you ensure no other amino acids will mess with your noble task. Preferably you haven’t eaten in a while when you take your trytophan. In fact smart people have determined you should have not eaten for at least 3 hours. That’s how long it takes for the amino acids from your foodto go through the digestive tract, the bloodstream, arrive at your brains doorstep and to be checked by the bodyguards. (They make some VIPS wait for THREE hours?? Still everyone wants in, must be one hell of a club.)
Ok so now we take our tryptophan after we have not eaten in 3 hours. Now we need to make sure all your little tryptophan molecules are undistrubed while waiting for the brains bodyguards to security check them. This takes two more hours. During this time you also should not eat, because as soon as you eat, there will be other amino acids which will get preferential treatment by the bodyguards.
That’s five hours of not eating to make sure your little molecules do get where you want them to be. By now it seems rather clear why tryptophan is not a very popular antidepressant. Of course some just take tryptophan with their meal but this will greatly reduce the effectiveness, as detailed above. That’s one of the reasons why studies about tryptophans effectiveness as an antidepressant are inconclusive.
The lengths you need to go to in order to make sure it works are not for the faint of heart. And we are talking about depressed people here. Anyhow I’m stubborn as a mule and VERY disciplined so that did not scare me away. So I stuck to the 5 hours not eating. The simplest way to do so is by taking tryptophan right after waking up. The digestive system will be rather devoid of any food after some hours of sleep. So five hours of not eating cut short into sleeping and two hours of not eating.
However if you and your doctor decide to try tryptophan to counteract depression but for some reason find yourself taking tryptophan only after 2pm there is a trick involved. (And I have been sleep disrupted enough to have my waking up coinciding with 4pm or later at times. One of the reasons I felt another antidepressant might do a better job.) After 4pm trypotophan will have another task to fulfil in the brain.
Instead of applying enzymes to turn it into serotonin to regulate your mood your brain will instead apply enzymes to turn it into melatonin to make you tired. You see busy molecules have different appointments all the time. Your body has a nice system in place to know what time it is at the moment. It’s called . The “circa” in the name refers to it as not being very acurate, it needs external input to be adjusted all the time. It uses light and temperature to calibrate. The “dian” refers to a days length: 24 hours.
So the circa-dian clock roughly knows what time of the day it is. It makes you sleepy at night and subsequently reduces your body temperature while sleeping and alert in the morning and so forth. So this happens:
circadian clock: “Nu-uh no serotonin, it’s melatonin time now!”
brain “Ok, sure!”
Because who doesn’t go to sleep at 4pm. Since you just worked very hard to have an unusual abundance of tryptophan in your brain if you don’t watch it you will get very sleepy and not very undepressed. And this is already important after 2pm because the tryptophan effects persist until two hours after you took it, so 2pm + 2 hrs =4 pm! Maths!
So if you take tryptophan to counter your depression after 2 pm you have a melatonin based problem. So what to do? Moving! For some reason when you are moving the dialogue between the circadian clock and the brain goes like this:
Circadian Clock: “Nu-uh no serotonin, it’s melatonin time now!”
Brain: “Nu-uh am busy moving about!”
CC: “Ok! But later, k?”
And with this we seamlessly have introduced the concept of moving interfering with tryptophan physiology. There is even a bonus round for perfectionists: there will always be some VIP amino acids around. The best way to keep them busy is to start a party elsewhere and make it mandatory for them to attend. How do we do that? Scientists have an idea but don’t know all the specifics yet.
The idea is one you may have heard of in this blog post already: move. Tryptophan will start to stand in line 30 mins after intake. That’s how long it takes tryptophan to be absorbed by your digestive system and go to the brain. And then for 90 minutes tryptophan will attempt to get into your brain to make things right. All the VIP amino acids are required in your muscles when you are physically active. The fun part is tryptophan is not used at all. So all the four VIPs which endlessly negotiating with the bodyguard about how much campaign will be free for them suddenly all get a call from their manager about this movie premiere they HAVE TO attend as soon as you start moving.
The suggestion is to start moving 30 mins after tryptophan intake and do so for at least 40 minutes. All the while tryptophan will be a happy little amino acid having the brain all to itself. Now the unclear part is do you go for a walk or do you jog to set up the perfect movie premiere in your muscles? No one knows, so go with what is best for you.
My money is on intense workouts because they help with depression independently of any medication anyway but I can’t always drag myself up to them (depressed, remember? 😛 ) but I try to make sure to be on the move in any way, shape or form at least. When I’m to depressed to even leave the house for a walk I might do the dishes and the laundry to kill two birds with one stone. The message here is: be creative and gentle with yourself. Not eating is already way more than half the battle.
You have essentially already won if you remember to take tryptophan upon waking up (before 2pm) and then can’t drag yourself up to make food for two hours. Everything else is the icing on the cake. From there it’s just about how high you want your victory to be. So yes I have been “guilty” of not moving when I should have once in a while. It wasn’t the end of the world.
Ok now we have covered mode of tryptophan intake, now dosage and side effects:
Dosage that was recommended to me is 1,5g to 3g 4 times a week for 3 weeks to build up serotonin levels. It is important to not take tryptophan every day else the enzymes in your brain get used to it and don’t make as much serotonin anymore. After the build up phase you should take it 2 times a week. So far the theory.
In my own experience I can say this: 1,5g was already too much for me. I experimented a bit and arrived at 1g on the trypto days. Also for some reason the buildup was riddled with tremors as a side effect (uncontrollable trembling) so in hindsight the buildup was too long and the dosage too high leading to unwanted effects. The maintenance dosage of only 2 days a week was too low. I ended up taking 1g tryptophan every second day. The good thing about tryptophan is, the effects are almost immediate. Most antidepressants take weeks to take effect so you can’t change the dosage based on what you experience within a few days.
With tryptophan draw up a scheme, see if it works for a few days (or weeks depending on how complex your scheme is, mine never were) and if you have too many side effects adjust scheme to reduce overall trypto intake somehow (either reduce dosage on the trypto days or reduce the number of trypto days) and see again for a few days. If you are to depressed then increase overall trypto intake and find your personal sweet spot. Other side effects from trypotophan I experienced were an increased appetite (since I’m underweight that was the best side effect ever! Only eating well the night before the tryptophan day was not always well scheduled making it hard to not eat for two hours after tryptophan intake) and decreased libido.
A pro tip for those taking tryptophan as powder rather than pills: at the beginning of this post I said tryptophan is not very soluble in water. This also means drinking water or tea immediately after spooning the powder into your mouth will lead to weird clumps and all sorts of strange sensations. I realised tho that tryptophan is soluble in saliva. So I keep the powder on the tip of my tongue for a while and wait until I have salivated enough to solve the powder in the liquid. Then its much easier to swallow with tea or water. (Don’t use juice or milk because they contain other amino acids which you do not want to cohabitate your system with your tryptophan as detailed above.)
Side note: to present you all the information on tryptophan I have read a non english article with more than 100 english references. If anyone is interested you can reach me under rootless intro spection on facebook. I can pm you the non english article or I can publish/pm the 100+ sources if requested 🙂