Thanksgiving is tryptophan’s favorite holiday: it’s the only time of year it gets any lovin’. But what is this amino acid really all about and how does it behave when combined with cannabis? The technical name is L-tryptophan (though its mother, and us, usually drop the L). It’s an amino acid (nerd alert: amino acids are building blocks of protein that help the body in all sorts of ways, including synthesizing hormones, neurotransmitters, and metabolic pathways). The body can’t make amino acids on its own; that’s why it’s essential we get them from food. Tryptophan, for its part, is best known for being present in turkey, but it’s in lots of foods (including all poultry). Some of the other foods that have it include meat, yogurt, eggs, fish, and cheese (say it with me: cheese glorious cheese!). Anything that is meat or dairy-based will usually contain it, but oats, dates, chickpeas, peanuts, buckwheat, almonds, and sunflower seeds contain it as well.
When the body consumes tryptophan, it converts it to niacin, a B vitamin that plays a role in the neurotransmitter serotonin. This role isn’t only relevant to things like depression (as anti-depressants often work by increasing serotonin levels), but it also helps modulate sleep. That’s where the “turkey makes you tired” connection comes into play.
But tryptophan doesn’t work alone; it needs help. In fact, in order to boost serotonin levels, tryptophan needs carbs (say it with me: carbs glorious carbs!).
Carbs get a bad rap (thank you, Dr. Atkins), but they are important to the body’s function. They provide energy, of course, but they also help mental regulation. When partnered with tryptophan, carbs help serotonin levels because they allow tryptophan to enter the brain more easily. They do this by releasing insulin, something that usually removes amino acids form the body. However, insulin doesn’t remove tryptophan; it gives it a boost.
Turkey and Sleepiness
Most of us have heard the rumor that turkey makes us tired: we’ve heard it so often that it’s a wonder anyone can get through Thanksgiving dinner without face-planting into their stuffing. But, while this is probably true (at least for most people), turkey doesn’t contain much more tryptophan than other types of meat. So, then, why is the Thanksgiving bird tied to drowsiness while a hamburger at a Saturday summer BBQ is not?
Sleepiness has more to do with what you eat in addition to the turkey (i.e., the mashed potatoes).
Carbs can certainly make you ready to settle in for a long winter nap. Overeating is also a factor – many of us eat too much on Thanksgiving, turning into professional eaters if only for a day. The environment plays a role too: eating a big dinner and then taking to the couch to watch football makes you more tired than downing a burger and then taking the field to play football. Tryptophan probably plays a role but a small one. Eating a feast of anything (turkey or not) will probably leave you ready for a nap.
Tryptophan as a Dietary Supplement
Tryptophan is also used as a dietary supplement, with some proof that it can help those struggling with depression: diets high in tryptophan don’t influence the levels of serotonin in the blood, but supplements might. Though it’s worth noting that anyone already taking prescribed medication for depression (or anxiety) should not take tryptophan as they are contraindicated.
Even when people aren’t on other medications, there has been some controversy surrounding the safety of tryptophan as a dietary supplement
Per WebMD, “It has been linked to over 1500 reports of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) and 37 deaths. EMS is a neurological condition with symptoms that include fatigue; intense muscle pain; nerve pain; skin changes; baldness; rash; and pain and swelling affecting the joints, connective tissue, lungs, heart, and liver. Symptoms tend to improve over time, but some people may still experience symptoms up to 2 years after they develop EMS.
Some people report that their symptoms have never gone away completely. L-tryptophan can cause some side effects such as heartburn, stomach pain, belching and gas, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. It can also cause a headache, lightheadedness, drowsiness, dry mouth, visual blurring, muscle weakness, and sexual problems.” It was recalled from the market back in the 1990s because of concern for the above. But, the vast majority of the cases traced back to a single manufacturer, making contamination – and not the actual supplement – the likely true culprit. Nowadays, the supplement is widely available. In fact, it’s in supplement form that many cannabis consumers take it: it’s easier to combine marijuana with a pill than a plate of poultry. Some people take it because they feel as though it enhances their high – this may or may not be true for you. But some swear it’s true: there’s a reason tryptophan sounds like “trip.” Others take it to minimize a weed “hangover.”
While marijuana doesn’t cause a true hangover (certainly not when compared to alcohol), it’s possible to feel a bit “off” the day after heavy imbibing. You may also feel strange after quitting for the first time in a while. A tryptophan supplement might help or it might not. But, again, be sure you’re not on a prescription drug that could cause some sort of adverse interaction. A meal high in tryptophan is unlikely to have much effect on you, whether or not you smoke pot. But the carbs you eat during Thanksgiving can and probably will make you sleepy.
If you’re going to take part in “Danksgiving,” choose your strains wisely. Stick to sativas like Green Crack or, at the very least, stay away from heavy indicas. And, if you’re worried about the munchies, opt for something lower in THC. Another option: you can also throw all caution to the wind and embrace your insatiable hunger. After all, if there is any day to celebrate the munchies, it’s a day that is dedicated, in part, to food.