The “Sleepy” Chemical in Food Improves Gut, Reduces Inflammation

There is a good chance that when you hear the word “tryptophan,” you think of turkey, milk and being sleepy. It’s the chemical in some foods that leaves you feeling tired. It releases melatonin and serotonin into your body, making you feel tired after eating it. A new study suggests it also reduces inflammation and improves gut health in older people.

The study was performed in mice, so it’s important to note that it needs more research in humans. Older mice who ate a low tryptophan diet for eight weeks had negative changes in their microbiomes and high levels of inflammation. While we generally think of tryptophan only in terms of making us sleepy, the researchers believe it’s more complicated than that. They believe tryptophan also “produces metabolites that affect every organ function.”

Not only did they see decreases in good bacteria in the gut, they saw heightened levels of the bacteria that increase body inflammation. They pointed out that simply eating turkey might not solve the problem. Some of the issues reversed themselves in just a few days when the mice ate more tryptophan. Others did not. The researchers said tryptophan couldn’t “rescue” the gut.

Their new research is looking into how to help a damaged microbiome. The researchers think the first step is figuring out what a balanced microbiome looks like. “We want to define what products that the gut generates that are good versus bad,” said Dr. Carlos Isales, who worked on the research at Augusta Univ.

The researchers point out that your immune system is heavily impacted by gut health. And that influences your overall health as you age. With a better understanding of what a healthy gut should look like, we could improve our health as we age.

One step toward a healthy gut is to eat a varied diet. Many foods are rich in tryptophan, not just milk and turkey. Dark meat chicken, leafy greens, eggs, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts and oats are all great sources! You should speak to your doctor about your healthy diet and gut. Your doctor may have some ideas for improving gut health or may want to refer you to a specialist if they believe it would be beneficial to you.

Recently, doctors have been saying we should think of our microbiome as an organ. It plays a massive role in our health. The trillions of bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses inside your gut influence your health so much that taking care of them is necessary. While eating more tryptophan might not cure a harmed gut, getting more variety can’t hurt you. If your next appointment isn’t for a while, drink a glass of milk, have some peanut butter and spinach and keep making healthy choices.  

Banner image: Claudio Schwarz via Unsplash

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