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What is the Relationship Between Tryptophan and Depression?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Tryptophan and depression are linked because it has been shown that tryptophan supplements may be an effective treatment for depression in those who have a serotonin deficiency. Studies are still being conducted to determine how well this therapy works and if there are any side effects. Since tryptophan is a naturally occurring amino acid, it is believed that side effects should be minimal. How effective it is treating depression will normally depend on the cause for the depression symptoms.

The link between tryptophan and depression treatment has been known for several years, although in some countries it was temporarily banned in supplement form after several individuals became ill. This illness was actually caused by a contaminant in the supplements rather than from the supplement itself, so the supplement is is widely available again in most areas. There is a correct way of taking it, however, and those who fail to do so properly may not receive any health benefits.

Tryptophan is found naturally in foods such as turkey or beef, but it generally needs to be taken in much higher quantities for medicinal use. It is processed by the body to make niacin, serotonin, and melatonin. A deficiency in serotonin production is thought to cause depression in many individuals, so upping its production may alleviate symptoms. When tryptophan and depression treatments are being used together, effects may be heightened, and it should not be combined with antidepressants until directed by a doctor.

One should take tryptophan alongside a B vitamin complex which so that it can be used to create serotonin rather than niacin. It should be taken on an empty stomach that is not in competition for absorption by the brain with other nutrients and amino acids. It is sometimes hard for the brain to absorb the proper amount of tryptophan, so doses may have to be altered to find an effective amount.

More studies are needed to confirm the connection between tryptophan and depression. Since it hasn’t been used for this purpose for very long, it is unknown whether or not side effects or adverse reactions will occur in some patients. Patients are encouraged to ask their doctors or pharmacists before taking tryptophan, especially if it will be taken in combination with other drugs or supplements.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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