Part I: The Amino Acid L-Tryptophan
“Why don’t amino acids always work the way they claim?” It’s a good question that has confused nutritionists for decades, and it can apply to all amino acids, even tryptophan.
Tryptophan first became available in healthfood stores nearly forty years ago, but even a quarter of a century later little work had been done to answer that question.
About ten year ago, Lidtke received a purchase order from an African nation for tryptophan. What concerned us was the fact that much of the population was malnourished.
We knew that inflammation, infection, poor genetics, and dietary deficiencies can block your body’s use of amino acids, including tryptophan. Vital information was available in scientific journals, but most of it was being ignored.
Just as explorers map trails through the wilderness, medical researchers map the biochemical trails (pathways) that amino acids follow while building health in your body. There are many directions that tryptophan, for example, can take, and each step along a pathway is like a toll-booth controlled by an enzyme.
These enzymes are the product of your individual genetics, and some may work better in one person than in another. Unlike digestive enzymes, though, you cannot take cellular enzymes in a capsule.
Furthermore, cellular enzymes cannot work alone. Enzymes are as useless as a car without wheels if they lack critical coenzymes and cofactors (vitamins, minerals, etc.) that allow an enzyme to function.
Without these helpers, your most important biochemical pathways may work poorly or become a dead end, forcing the production of undesirable waste products that provoke side effects or produce disease.
As an example, once inside the cell tryptophan can follow several pathways. The challenge is to encourage tryptophan to follow the one branch that leads to serotonin and to discourage tryptophan from converting into less-desirable chemicals such as kynurenine or quinolinic acid.
Since the 1990’s, scientists have known that infections have the potential to interfere with tryptophan metabolism. Infections that alter biochemical pathways in the brain can have serious consequences.
Dr. Susan Swedo, acting scientific director at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), discovered that muscle tics and repetitive, compulsive behaviors could sometimes be traced back to childhood infections. When she filtered her patients’ blood, removing antibodies originally created to combat the infection, she found that the compulsive behaviors cleared. This is critical information for those with OCD.
What this demonstrated, though, was that your own immune system can play a detrimental role in brain health. Furthermore, your immune system can be activated by any number of factors, including infections, food allergens, or environmental toxins.
Although the exact mechanisms still are not fully understood, the symptoms studied by Dr. Swedo also have been linked to excess kynurenine and/or quinolinic acid in the brain.
The process begins when infections, etc., set off the release of cytokines. Cytokines are proinflammatory proteins that help your body fight infections - up to a point.
Cytokines, in turn, switch on an enzyme called IDO. An unfortunate consequence of IDO is that it degrades tryptophan and shuttles the breakdown products into the making of kynurenine and quinolinic acid, thus diverting tryptophan away from the production of serotonin.
At this point, researchers report that one or both of these two brain chemicals, kynurenine and quinolinic acid, may act directly on serotonin and depress levels even further.
By this series of steps, then, infection, allergies, or toxins may activate your immune system to produce inflammatory cytokines, which in turn may cause changes in the biochemistry of your brain, altering biochemical pathways and seriously affecting mood and behavior.
Coenzymes typically are the enzymatic-forms of vitamins, such as pyridoxal 5-phosphate (the enzymatically correct form of vitamin B6), but sometimes coenzymes are biochemicals that few people have ever heard of. Yet, they are essential to life.
The concept here is simple: as a consumer, you are seeking to ensure that every bit of the tryptophan you consume produces and sustains serotonin, promotes health, and gives you the benefits you expect.
The logical combining of the right nutrients for the right job then provides your cellular enzymes with the tools they need to perform their job.
My quest for a thorough understanding of tryptophan metabolism was inspired by the fact that people in the African nation, whom I spoke of earlier, and many others around the Earth are so poorly nourished they may fail to thrive from whatever food or rations they receive. Donations of products to starving nations can be wasted for lack of a single nutrient.
Even in prosperous countries, unwise diets can block the enzymes that you need to utilize essential amino acids.
Serotonin / Tryptophan
In stark contrast to the designer chemicals coming out of laboratories, tryptophan occurs naturally in your diet, and a healthy body is born with the ability to process L-tryptophan without side effects. In further contrast to tryptophan, designer chemicals can lose their effectiveness over time by damaging your serotonin receptors.
Dozens of research papers demonstrate that supplements of natural tryptophan increase serotonin levels in the brain and promote healthy receptors, something no designer chemical currently can do.
Less well-known, though, is the fact that only a small percentage of tryptophan goes down your serotonin pathway… nearly all the rest goes into building proteins throughout your body. So, increasing that percentage even a small amount can provide a dramatic boost to your brain serotonin levels. Why care? Because a simple boost in serotonin may provide you with restful sleep and brighter, happier moods.
What goes on inside your cells?
Inside a serotonin-producing neuron, tryptophan works with a coenzyme, abbreviated BH4, to form the well-known 5-hydroxy tryptophan (5-HTP). This is the first step in the tryptophan-to-serotonin pathway.
Well-funded researchers in university laboratories have found that BH4 actually increases the throughput of the serotonin pathway. Although it doesn’t take much BH4, the astronomical cost of $4 million per kilogram (when purchased as a research biochemical) keeps BH4 far out of the reach of nutritional supplements. A combination of precursors can provide the building-blocks for BH4 at a far more affordable price.
The second step to serotonin production requires vitamin B6, but here we should make a distinction. Not any common chemical-form of vitamin B6 can do the job. Serotonin-producing enzymes can only use the natural, enzymatic form of vitamin B6, pyridoxal 5-phosphate (P5P).
And while pure P5P costs far less than $4 million per kilogram, P5P still is twelve (12) times more expensive than the cheap chemical, pyridoxine HCl that often is found in supplements. This added expense, though, helps to ensure your supplements work the way they were designed to work.
To be exact, there is a process that takes place in the liver called phosphorylation. Phosphorylation can convert limited amounts of the chemical-form of B6 to the natural form of vitamin B6. Knowledgeable researchers have voiced concern, however, that pyridoxine HCl may actually block vitamin-B6 receptors, possibly leading to vitamin B6 deficiency symptoms… the opposite of what you would expect from a “vitamin B6” supplement!
As we see, the right combination of cofactors and coenzymes drives the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin.
But, scientists always believe we can do better. In fact, very recent research shows that the widely used herbal extract, curcumin, a bright yellow extract from the turmeric root that is used in curry, helps to preserve serotonin and slow its breakdown.
This is not the entire picture, of course, but in order to experience the benefits of tryptophan, two things need to be true. The first is that you need to consume a full spectrum of nutrients that can ensure the proper metabolism of tryptophan.
The second is that you need to carefully select a diet to maintain a healthy gastrointestinal environment. Healthy intestinal bacteria can help to control an over-zealous immune response that can profoundly disrupt your metabolism and brain chemistry. This is what we have learned from our study of cytokines and IDO.
A word about Quality
A point that rarely receives much notice is the cosmetic reworking of amino acids to make them appear “pure.” There are milling and whitening procedures that often are applied just to give amino acids a sparkling-white, bleached, “pure” look.
Manufacturers, it seems, have learned how to fool the public. Manufacturers know that consumers often judge by appearances, but what they do not know is that reworking a nutrient to improve the appearance can actually degrade the quality of a nutrient.
If a crystalline amino acid has never been “flattened” to give a shiny appearance, you end up with a fluffier material that takes up more space in a capsule. In turn, this makes the encapsulation process slower and more labor-intensive and more expensive. In the end, though, by taking extra time, we have not introduced contaminants into a product simply for a “cosmetic” effect. We believe purity and safety should prevail.
Do I need Tryptophan?
Because tryptophan is essential, no other amino acid, vitamin, mineral, herb or designer chemical can take its place, and tryptophan is routinely added to baby food and hospital IV solutions, where it is essential for growth and life.
Furthermore, blood amino-acid profiles of hundreds of patients, along with the extensive analysis of foods done by Dr. Charles Jarowski, former Director of Research and Development at Pfizer, Inc., demonstrate that tryptophan is the essential amino acid most lacking in our diet.
Whether you are worn out by the common stresses of this world, or whether you suffer from an amino-acid imbalance that seems to be depleting your serotonin, consider trying the essential amino acids - beginning with the one we lack most.
Feel better, sleep better. Be at peace in body, mind and spirit. ● ●