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Tryptophan is an amino acid (a kind of protein) your brain uses to make serotonin, and in experiments, more tryptophan in the blood causes more serotonin in the brain. What does it matter? Well, if you don't have enough serotonin, it can make you depressed and irritable. This is especially important for women ("Women have much less serotonin in their brains than men," says this article from MIT).

Almost all good sources of protein have many different amino acids, including tryptophan, so it shouldn't be a problem to get enough tryptophan, right? Unfortunately, the other amino acids compete with tryptophan to get into the brain.

But if you eat some carbohydrates with your protein, the insulin your body releases in response to carbohydrates takes the competing proteins out of your bloodstream, which allows more tryptophan to get into your brain.

If you eat meals containing nothing but protein, your serotonin level will be low (too much competition so not much tryptophan can get into your brain). If you eat nothing but carbs, you won't have any tryptophan (it's a protein), so your serotonin level will be low. If you drink a sugary beverage, you have put calories into your body and missed an opportunity to make serotonin. If you eat a fruit snack and nothing else, you missed another opportunity. But if you always mix protein and carbs together in every meal, you will get the maximum tryptophan into your brain, so you'll have enough serotonin, and that will help you feel good.

A nice side-effect is that a higher serotonin level suppresses your appetite. A low serotonin level makes people crave carbohydrates. Isn't that interesting? This means if you eat nothing but protein, you will crave carbs. But if you eat only carbs you will still crave carbs because you're actually craving the tryptophan you need to raise your serotonin. It's as if your body assumes the protein will be there, so it only craves carbs. But carbs won't do it. Mix some good quality protein in there (and good quality carbs too while you're at it) and you have the best chance of being slim and happy.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot

2 comments:

Adam Khan 1:46 PM  

My wife, Klassy Evans, just wrote a letter to someone, and I thought the letter explained the tryptophan-serotonin connection better than I did, so I am quoting it here to add clarity to the article above:

"Serotonin does a lot of things, but two things interest me most: serotonin elevates the mood and suppresses the appetite.

"In order to get serotonin the body needs B6 and tryptophan.

"What the researchers at MIT found was that the body needed carbohydrates to produce serotonin because carbs cause the body to produce insulin which clears the blood of most of the amino acids by causing them to go into the muscle tissues. But tryptophan and a couple of other amino acids aren't affected as much by the insulin, so more tryptophan remains in the blood stream, allowing it to get into the brain to form serotonin.

"If I only eat carbs, I eat and eat because there's very little tryptophan to make serotonin to suppress my appetite.

"If I eat mostly protein, I eat and eat because there's too much competition for the tryptophan and so no serotonin suppresses my appetite.

"So now, if I'm going to eat carbs, I eat some protein too. If I want an English muffin in the morning, I eat an egg first. And if I want some chicken in the afternoon, I have it with rice or salad or as a sandwich.

"All I try to do is make sure when I have protein in my system, I have carbs to free up the tryptophan to make serotonin so my appetite is suppressed. And when I want carbs, I make sure I have some protein with them for the same reason.

"And I also make sure I take my B vitamins."

Fred Miller 8:23 AM  

Eating slowly and meditatively also gives plenty of time for release of all the neurotransmitters implicated in pleasure. If we eat too fast, these neurotransmitters have no time to work, and we end up feeling stuffed rather than pleased.

It actually takes work to focus on the taste of food, but the rewards are a slimmer body and increased sensory pleasure.

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