How Tryptophan Benefits Aging

In my twenties I viewed aging through the stereotypical lens of “Grumpy Old Men”. Now that I’m older it doesn’t seem so funny.

How can Tryptophan Help?

As we age our bio-chemistry gradually changes almost unnoticed until one day the changes have summated to the point we are no longer that youthful self we once were. These changes include increased irritability, inability to handle stress, increased anxiety, inability to sleep and possible depression. All the above have one thing in common. A reduction in the brain’s neurotransmitter called serotonin (aka. “The Feel Good Neurotransmitter”).

There are many neurotransmitter but these 4 (dopamine, acetylcholine, GABA, and serotonin) have been extensively researched, and these 4 control some of our most basic functions. Both dopamine and acetylcholine are “ON” switches that create energy for power and speed respectively. Whereas, GABA and serotonin are “OFF” switches and create electricity for calming the body and helping us sleep. You have probably know people in your life that are fast talker and thinkers. They are acetylcholine dominate. While the laid back people who never get riled up are GABA dominate. Dopamine generates excitatory pleasure like a roller coaster ride, while serotonin generates that loving, warm fuzzy feeling like a new puppy.

The occipital lobe in the back of our heads controls visual function, regulates rest, and synchronizes all the cerebral lobes. It produces delta brain waves and the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is also responsible for visual memory, our ability to remember faces, colors, shapes, designs, surrounding, pictures and symbols.
Our digestive system also produces serotonin to control the muscles of digestion. It has been a long tradition to have the evening meal with friends and family in a relaxed calming environment. It is questionable whether serotonin generated for digestion passes the blood brain barrier or not, but I know how I feel after a good meal with friends and family.

As we age, our bodies produce fewer hormones and hormones help regulate neurotransmitter production. This throws off the delicate balance and opens us to physical problems. Imbalances are also  caused by day to day stress and by the choices we make regarding our diets. Chronic, low-grade inflammation also interferes with the production and release of serotonin.

All neurotransmitter must be present and in balance for us to have a state of well being. If there are any excesses or deficiencies our health and well being will suffer. The 4 major ways that we are affected are 1. attention, 2. memory, 3. personality, and 4. physical health.

Serotonin plays a major role in the control of mood, aggression, pain, anxiety, sleep, memory, eating behavior, addictive behavior, temperature control, endocrine regulation, and motor behavior. Grumpiness, irritability, stress and anxiety are common in aging adults. Other symptoms like sleep disorders, panic attacks, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal thinking have all been traced to depletion of serotonin levels in the brain.

This depletion can be treated by; medications like SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) aka. Zoloft, Prozac, Paxil, lexapro etc., lifestyle changes (removing stressful situations), hormone (estrogen therapy), diet and dietary supplements, and electrical stimulation.

Obviously I will focus on diet. Amino acids are the building blocks for proteins and as we digest proteins we break the protein down into it’s amino acids. Each source of protein contains different combinations of amino acids, and amino acids are the precursors (the foundation) on which neurotransmitters are built. By making better dietary choices you can maintain a healthier, balanced self. You won’t see changes instantly, it may several days but neurotransmitter levels can be altered with diet. Dietary changes may take longer than medication but it is far gentler on your body than medication and you achieve a far more stable and long term balance.

In order for your body to manufacture serotonin, it needs the amino acid tryptophan. The bodies response to anxiety and stress, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, involves the serotonin signaling system, as well as hormone pathways in the brain, pituitary, and adrenal glands. Prolonged stress depletes serotonin as well as the supplies of the precursor tryptophan. This connection between tryptophan and serotonin explains why tryptophan supplementation has been found to help reduce anxiety and alleviate stress. And, tryptophan depletion in people with anxiety disorder or with post-traumatic stress disorder leads to a temporary worsening of their symptoms. Infact, much of what is known about serotonin comes from studies on psychiatric and behavioral disturbances and tryptophan depletion. Lowering tryptophan levels triggers a drop in serotonin production and impacts mood, memory, and increases aggression.

You can’t supplement with serotonin itself, but tryptophan is readily available and safe. Studies have shown that supplementing with tryptophan helps normalize levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. As a result it can reverse many of the behavioral symptoms of age, including irritability, mood disorders, anxiety, and stress. Melatonin which helps us relax and go to sleep is also made from tryptophan. Studies show that people who sleep poorly are more likely to consume fats or refined sugars, to eat fewer vegetable portions, and to have more irregular meal patterns.

Studies dating back to the late 1970s showed that taking between 1,000 and 1,500mg of tryptophan at bedtime can help you fall asleep. It has also been shown to be beneficial for people suffering sleep apnea. Even though I focused on older adults tryptophan supplementation can be beneficial for younger adults also.

Serotonin depletion has been at the center of studies on depression for quite some time. The medication designed to treat depression focuses on trying to stop the reuptake of serotonin or stopping the destruction of serotonin. Most of these medications work short term then their effectiveness drops sharply. The reason is nothing is being done to increase production of serotonin. Studies show that tryptophan supplementation can be combined with anti-depression medication.

Tryptophan supplementation is as effective for seasonal affective disorder (winter blues) as light therapy. Studies have also shown that tryptophan may improve mood swings associated with premenstrual syndrome, and may improve restless leg syndrome.

Food that contain high concentrations of tryptophan include nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs.