Tryptophan for Better Sleep

Q My insomnia has gotten worse in the last few years, so I probably qualify as a chronic sufferer. Can melatonin or any other nutrient be of help?

JAMIE, Miami, FL

A Many studies have found melatonin to be of substantial value for better sleep. Another important nutrient found to enhance sleep is the amino acid tryptophan. In an interesting study done in Canada, pharmaceutical-grade tryptophan with carbohydrate and protein-source tryptophan with carbohydrate, but not carbohydrate alone, resulted in significant improvement on subjective and objective measures of insomnia. The carbohydrate used was glucose.

In general, intact protein rich in tryptophan has not been considered as an alternative to pharmaceutical-grade tryptophan, because protein also contains large neutral amino acids that compete for transport sites across the blood-brain barrier, thus diminishing the impact of the contained tryptophan. In the Canadian study, however, oil-reduced gourd seed, an extremely rich source of tryptophan (22 mg tryptophan per 1 g protein), was used. The primary problem, however, is that 25 g of gourd seed is needed to provide 550 mg of pharmaceutical-grade tryptophan. There are probably other items in the seed that test the tolerable limits; seeds typically have toxicity problems owing to high levels of mutagens.


  1. Hudson C, Hudson SP, Hecht T, MacKenzie J. Protein source tryptophan versus pharmaceutical grade tryptophan as an efficacious treatment for chronic insomnia. Nutr Neurosci 2005;8(2):121-7.

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