There’s the turkey/drowsy myth: Eating a lot of juicy turkey supposedly makes people tired because it contains an amino acid called tryptophan. This molecule travels to the brain, where it is converted into a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which in turn is converted into a hormone called melatonin. there he is! drowsiness;
But science and the internet agree: It’s not to blame turkey tryptophan for its post-holiday nap. All protein sources, even vegetables, contain some tryptophan. The turkey is not at all special in this respect.
This tryptophan/mood connection is an area of ongoing research. And while some are intrigued by the potential of tryptophan, it is not clear whether the excitement is justified.
I’m looking for the tryptophan link for mood
There is some scientific evidence that taking tryptophan can alter your mood.
For example, in 2000, researchers found that when people ate an isolate protein with a very high tryptophan content, they felt less stress while doing math problems.
However, placebo-controlled clinical trials, in general, have not shown much relevance. Some studies have found that taking pure tryptophan has provided little benefit to people with depression. Some studies have even looked at what happens when tryptophan is removed from people’s diets, but they have also found little or no effect.
So what explains the mixed results?
Read more: Thank fungi for cheese, wine and beer this holiday season
Serotonin itself still holds mysteries
Besides human studies, tryptophan biology has been well studied in rodents. Research in the early 1970s showed that taking tryptophan supplements can boost serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has been historically associated with feelings of well-being and happiness.
Since then, scientists have learned many interesting facts about serotonin. For example, there are 14 separate serotonin receptors, which are located throughout the brain.
Researchers have learned how to affect this system with drugs, but not with great accuracy. For example, medications such as the antidepressant SSRIs — widely known as SSRIs — do not target individual receptors and are not limited to specific areas of the brain. Instead, SSRIs, and The most famous of these is Prozac, which boosts serotonin all over.
This indeterminacy is why, in my opinion, it’s hard to believe that SSRIs work at all. Here’s an analogy: Suppose you’re Jeff Bezos and you want to increase Amazon revenue by speeding up deliveries. So I decided to increase the speed in all delivery vehicles. From now on, each truck will increase its speed by 5%. It might be a stroke of logistical genius, or maybe, more likely, it ends up in a mess. Like serotonin ramping up throughout the brain, this blunt method may not be ideal.
Read more: NS! I need chocolate! The science of food cravings during menstruation
Regardless of the comparisons, whether SSRIs affect people’s moods is an empirical question, and some research has supported the idea that these drugs work. However, in recent times especially, its effectiveness has come under intense scrutiny. Some recent analyzes cite 30-year studies and question the clinical value of SSRIs, while others assert that these drugs improve symptoms of depression.
It’s complicated, and there is still some disagreement, but most psychiatrists agree that SSRIs are not effective for everyone. These medications aren’t a psychotherapy for everything.
More chemical tuning of mood
In light of all this, I often find myself wondering if psychological researchers need the 73 studies looking at whether tryptophan depletion has an effect on mood.
When it comes to understanding the links between gut bacteria and the brain, or the greater challenge of understanding and treating mental illness, should researchers really keep thinking about tryptophan?
It seems correct that, similar to SSRIs, tryptophan boosting has a broad effect on serotonin. It is certainly possible that excess serotonin can affect mood, so boosting tryptophan can do the same. But it’s also possible that manipulating something as complex as human emotions requires quite a few nuances.
Read more: Health Check: ‘Food coma’, or why eating sometimes makes you sleepy
Psychological research has long shied away from the idea that your brain is a bag of chemicals; Modern neuroscientists are asking for more determination. From this perspective, I am skeptical of the idea that tryptophan is the depression treatment that psychiatry needs. Not only has experimental research found somewhat weak results, but the theory itself is not very convincing.
Seemingly full of psychological potential, serotonin has fascinated psychological researchers for a long time. But what the past half century has apparently shown is that the neuroscience of human emotion is not simple. To promote lasting changes in mental health, scientists may need to revere more of the complex emotional beings that we all are.
So no, a big turkey dinner, full of tryptophan as tasty as it may be, probably won’t be the neurochemical driver of your Thanksgiving mood.
Andrew Neff is an adjunct faculty member in psychology at the University of Rochester, New York. Neff does not work for, consult with, or hold stock in any company, organization, or organization that may benefit from this article, and she has not disclosed any relevant affiliations following her academic appointment.