Illustration by Sibel Ergener

I Couldn’t Sleep, So I Tried Over-the-Counter Tryptophan

Forget turkey; the purest tryptophan comes in pill form and can be purchased at the local drugstore

We live in a post-tryptophan world.

The idea that turkey makes you sleepy because it has a special chemical in it has been a standard part of Thanksgiving small talk since time immemorial. Plus, having a scientific term on hand let us pretend there was a pseudo-medical reason for our deep post-pumpkin-pie food coma: We weren’t animals who couldn’t quit stuffing our faces with mashed potatoes, turkey and booze until our bodies forced us to stop. We were just victims of the tryptophan!

In recent years, though, the cold, hard truth has caught up with the myth. Turkey only has a small amount of tryptophan in it — and every other type of meat out there has some tryptophan in it, too. It’s just an amino acid like any other, drowned out in the sea of amino acids we eat every day. We’ve been lying to ourselves all this time.

There was, however, a nugget of reality in all the tryptophan talk — it’s a chemical precursor to the neurotransmitters melatonin and serotonin, which are known to make you sleepy and happy, respectively. So, the thinking goes, boosting your tryptophan input will boost those neurotransmitters, too, making you feel more relaxed and happy during the day and, most importantly, sleep like a fat, happy baby at night. Some research backs up this assertion. For example, scientists use tryptophan in experiments when they want to boost serotonin production in animals (though it’s unclear whether the average human’s serotonin needs any boosting, or how much extra tryptophan your body can even process).

As it happens, you can buy pure tryptophan in capsule form at your friendly local vitamin store (or in my case, Vitamin Shoppe) — it’s either in the amino acids section or over by the sleepy stuff like melatonin and valerian root, made by a variety of brands.

Tryptophan, just like turkey meat, has a dark side. Pure tryptophan was banned in the U.S. and many other parts of the world from 1991 to 2005, after 1,500 people who were taking tryptophan came down with a mysterious blood-muscle disease called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome in 1989. (Thirty-seven of those people died as a result.) Research in the years since has indicated that impurities in the tryptophan pills, not the tryptophan itself, caused the outbreak, but some still believe that huge doses of tryptophan itself were to blame. Either way, the FDA loosened restrictions in 2005, so the supplement is back on the market.

So like, gobble gobble! It’s probably fine, and I could use some lower anxiety, increased happiness and better sleep for the two weeks between the election and Thanksgiving. Plus, I’m taking a redeye to the East Coast in the middle of the experiment — a true challenge for sleep, anxiety and mood alteration!

The Treatment

Internet sources disagree on exactly how much tryptophan one should take to reap all the sleepy chill benefits of the drug, so I thought I’d just follow the guidelines set out by one of the foremost authorities on the supplement: the back of the bottle.

According to my Source Naturals brand L-Tryptophan, which was $17.99 on sale, the suggested use is “1 capsule three times daily, between meals and preferably with fruit juice. To support restful sleep, take 3 capsules before bed.”

Seems like a lot — these are big honking capsules, the size of Mike & Ikes — but okay, I trust you, unregulated bottle of pills.

Goal

To become more relaxed, happy and mood-stable, and get some solid shuteye.

Method and Results

Day One: Late on a Tuesday night, I pick up my bottle. It’s around 8 p.m., and I haven’t had much to eat yet, so I pop a capsule when I get home and wash it down with some apple cider. Seasonal!

That night before going to bed, I choke down three big capsules. I become very sleepy, but only after about an hour and a half of reading — nothing special here.

Day Two: In the morning, I definitely feel drugged. I’ve taken melatonin before, and this feels similar, like a low-key version of a NyQuil hangover. Once I get some coffee in me, though, I actually feel pretty good.

I begin the day with my mood high and my stress low, but as the post-daylight-saving darkness appears at 4 p.m., the tryptophan starts to fail me. I keep popping capsules on schedule, but at most, they seem to be giving me a slightly upset stomach.

That night, after I board my redeye to New York and bum a tiny water bottle off the guy sitting next to me (he had three), I gulp down my sleepy-time trio of giant Tryps. Two hours later, I’m still up even though I’m exhausted, finding it impossible to sleep while a woman in the row in front of me watches Fox News on the in-flight entertainment system.

Day Three: I’m in New York, and I’m not feeling fine. After getting to a friend’s apartment and taking a nap, I wake up and pop another capsule. My jet-lagged brain is so out of it that it’s impossible to tell if the Tryp is really changing much, and the pattern holds through pills two and three. As the jet-lag wears off, I do start to feel a little… floaty? Buoyed? Turkey-high? But that could just be from the mix of coffee, alcohol, NYC cold and warm fuzzies of seeing friends for the first time in months.

After some complicated logistics about whose couch I’m crashing on, I take a fistful of Tryps to knock me out. My hosts don’t have any fruit juice on hand, so I have to make do with water.

Day Four: I wake up less groggy than the day before and muster some energy after my morning coffee kicks in. My mood? Stable enough. My anxiety? Kind of middle-high. My sleep? I keep having election dreams where I discover Donald Trump is renting the apartment above my grandparents. These are not nice dreams.

Conclusion

Even in its purest, most potent form, tryptophan doesn’t do all that much.

It did have a palpable effect on how I slept — or at least how I felt when I woke up — but I’m not sure that it was really an improvement. I had some brief moments of zen during my tryptophan-laced days, but my chill levels were not off the charts.

If I wanted to summon up feelings of Thanksgiving, sleepiness and well-being, I would’ve been better off just eating three pieces of roast turkey between meals, and chomping on a nice drumstick before bed.

On the plus side, I did not develop a rare blood-muscle disorder. And for that, I am thankful.