Why Thanksgiving is the Perfect Time to De-stress with Tryptophan

Lisa BoothNov 21, 2022

Holiday stress can ruin your fun and be a drain on your health and sense of well-being. Rather than stuffing in too many to-dos, serve yourself an extra helping of self-care this Thanksgiving. Learn what's really happening when you experience the rumored post-Turkey slump, and tackle your holiday stress while supporting your well-being with the special mood-boosting nutrient tryptophan.

How holiday stress is harmful for health

Life seems to expect even more from us around the holiday season. Financial burdens, family fights, hectic hosting, and unpredictable travel to name a few. Some stress can be motivating, but when it lasts, it can harm our health.

Why you get stressed

Stress is our body and mind’s normal reaction to feeling threatened or endangered. It’s a coping response to get us out of fatal situations, such as running from a bear. Our central nervous system initiates numerous actions to help us get to safety, such as more blood flow to our muscles so we can run (1). The problem is, most stress - including holiday-induced stress, is perceived unmanageable pressure, meaning it's in our minds and might not actually be a threat.

The effect of stress on your body

When we experience chronic stress, it can cause physical problems such as high blood pressure, headaches, diabetes, arthritis, and digestive issues (2). When it comes to mental health, long term stress can lead to poor memory, anxiety, and even depression.

Stress and sleep deprivation

Another common symptom of chronic stress is sleeping difficulties. Ever crave sugary sweets or comfort foods after a sleepless night? That’s because the hunger hormone ghrelin spikes while the satisfying hormone leptin drops after a rough night. As a result, poor quality sleep makes us feel even more hungry, getting in the way of otherwise healthy behaviors. It also causes more stress, creating a negative cycle.

What is tryptophan?

Speaking of sleep, have you ever felt relaxed or ready to doze off after eating Thanksgiving dinner? That tranquil sensation doesn’t just come from being full, it’s caused by an amino acid, tryptophan, nicknamed “the sleep vitamin‘.

L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid, used as a building block for proteins, enzymes and neurotransmitters. This is the sole precursor, or building block, of serotonin (the “happy” brain chemical).

Tryptophan, serotonin, and melatonin

Tryptophan is not only the building block of “feel good” serotonin but also “sleep well” melatonin. Tryptophan, serotonin, and melatonin work together. When you consume tryptophan, some is absorbed into your bloodstream while some is used by your healthy gut bacteria. These friendly bugs use tryptophan to make serotonin. There are also cofactors, such as B vitamins and vitamin C, which help tryptophan become serotonin.

Serotonin’s role in the body:

  • Happiness
  • Memory
  • Learning
  • Regulating body temperature
  • Hunger
  • Gastrointestinal motility

Signs of low serotonin

People who have low levels of tryptophan and serotonin may have an increased risk for anxiety and depression (3). Some other common symptoms include:

  • Low mood or experiencing lack of joy
  • Feeling overwhelmed or stressed
  • Being a perfectionist
  • Craving carbohydrates (especially in the afternoon when serotonin naturally dips)

Serotonin is the precursor for melatonin, known as the sleep hormone since it regulates your body clock and helps you fall asleep. So tryptophan becomes serotonin, which then makes melatonin.

Melatonin’s role in the body (5):

  • Sleep-wake cycle
  • Sleep feeling before bed
  • Mitochondrial protectant
  • Brain antioxidant

Signs of low melatonin

Melatonin production is dependent upon adequate intake of the amino acid tryptophan, as well as light and darkness exposure. The most common sign of low melatonin is poor sleep quality which can directly impact mood and stress tolerance.

How tryptophan boosts mood

Tryptophan helps to improve mood through its cardinal role in both serotonin and melatonin production thus helping us feel happy and get adequate sleep to be ready to take on the next day. The majority of serotonin is made in our digestive tract through the consumption of foods, drinks, or supplements that contain tryptophan (4).

Foods that naturally boost serotonin

So back to that post Thanksgiving dinner slump. Tryptophan is naturally found in common Thanksgiving staples such as turkey, nuts, and dairy. These contribute to those sleepy, relaxed feelings. Having these alongside carbohydrates (hello stuffing, mashed potatoes, and dessert) can block other amino acids, making tryptophan more available in our brain.

Since tryptophan is an amino acid, it's often found in protein-rich foods such as:

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Dairy
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans

Essential vitamins and minerals that support tryptophan in becoming serotonin or melatonin:

  • B vitamins: meat, seafood, beans, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, nutritional yeast.
  • Vitamin C: citrus fruits (lemon, lime, oranges), bell peppers, berries, tomato.

Mood-boosting meal ideas: brown rice with beans and bell pepper, yogurt with nuts and berries, or chicken served on spinach with a squeeze of lemon juice.

Serotonin boosting lifestyle tips

Eating more serotonin or melatonin promoting foods can balance your stress, improve your mood, and get you to sleep more soundly. But it also comes down to healthy lifestyle habits. This Thanksgiving, give yourself the gift of feeling good by:

  • Asking for help:
    • Do it potluck style and ask your friends or family to bring dishes, have kids or guests do the dishes, or use some partially prepared foods such as pre-chopped vegetables.
  • Getting a workout:
    • Walk to the store (bonus of carrying heavy items), do a quick at-home workout, or go for a stroll after your meal to “walk it off”  and balance blood sugar.
  • Prioritizing sleep:
    • Wind down an hour before bed by taking a warm bath or shower, set an alarm and go to bed instead of binge watching movies or shows, and keep caffeine to a minimum.
  • Seeing some sun:
    • Get outside, open windows, and expose yourself to some sunlight in the morning. If you live further away from the equator consider investing in a light therapy box.

Learn about more stress management techniques here: This Hack Can Reduce Your Stress in 5 Minutes.

The bottom line

It’s normal to feel more stress during the holidays like Thanksgiving, but too much can harm your health. This year, support your physical and mental wellbeing by incorporating tryptophan-rich foods (good quality meats, beans, or dairy) alongside fresh fruits and vegetables to boost your feel-good serotonin levels. Aim to do at least one stress management practice such as a walk or deep breathing per day. Your body (and your family) will give thanks!

Sources

  1. Schneiderman, Neil, Gail Ironson, and Scott D. Siegel. 2015. “Stress and Health: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 1 (1): 607–28. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.144141.
  2. Yaribeygi, Habib, Yunes Panahi, Hedayat Sahraei, Thomas P Johnston, and Amirhossein Sahebkar. 2017. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.” EXCLI Journal 16 (1): 1057–72. https://doi.org/10.17179/excli2017-480.
  3. Schruers, Koen, Tineke Klaassen, Henk Pols, Thea Overbeek, Nicolaas E.P Deutz, and Eric Griez. 2000. “Effects of Tryptophan Depletion on Carbon Dioxide Provoked Panic in Panic Disorder Patients.” Psychiatry Research 93 (3): 179–87. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0165-1781(00)00117-7.
  4. Richard, Dawn M, Michael A Dawes, Charles W Mathias, Ashley Acheson, Nathalie Hill-Kapturczak, and Donald M Dougherty. 2009. “L-Tryptophan: Basic Metabolic Functions, Behavioral Research and Therapeutic Indications.” International Journal of Tryptophan Research : IJTR 2: 45–60. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908021/.
  5. Hajak, G., G. Huether, J. Blanke, M. Blömer, C. Freyer, B. Poeggeler, A. Reimer, A. Rodenbeck, M. Schulz-Varszegi, and E. Rüther. 1991. “The Influence of Intravenous L-Tryptophan on Plasma Melatonin and Sleep in Men.” Pharmacopsychiatry 24 (01): 17–20. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2007-1014427.
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