Side Effects of Tryptophan Supplements

Marisa Zeppieri-Caruana
Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Couple sleeping in bed

Taking in sufficient amounts of tryptophan through diet can result in positive effects on your mood. However, introducing tryptophan supplements on a regular basis, while potentially helpful, has been noted to produce side effects that can range from mild to severe. In addition, severe side effects can be irreversible and life threatening. With this in mind, it's important to speak with your physician or health care provider before taking tryptophan in supplement form.

Positive Effects of Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that your body can't produce. This one fact makes the need for supplementation seem like a reasonable option. However, after the tryptophan epidemic occurred in the late 1980's, many people chose to obtain their body's need of tryptophan through diet rather than a supplement. While diet alone does provide a small amount, supplementation may be recommended for specific health conditions. Here are several health issues that can be improved through tryptophan supplement usage.

Mood Enhancement

Tryptophan provides a vital element necessary for neurotransmitters like serotonin and melatonin. Without them, your brain cannot function properly. A lack of tryptophan can result in serotonin deficiencies, which can result in depression. According to Natural Medicine Journal, 1g to 6g per day may be used as a supplement to help treat depression, but it will lose its efficacy when more than 6 g per day is taken. It's also suggested that the dosage be divided so it can be taken twice daily, keeping blood tryptophan concentrations steady.

Help for Insomnia

Researchers at the University of Maryland suggest taking 1 g of L-tryptophan before bedtime to help induce sleepiness, and delay wake times. They believe the supplement initiates sleep by increasing your body's serotonin level, which promotes relaxation.

If tryptophan supplementation isn't your first choice to help with the above health concerns, your doctor may begin by suggesting a change in your diet to get the tryptophan you need. Eating food rich in tryptophan may also alleviate both depression and insomnia, and enhance overall mood. Be mindful of these foods if you start taking supplements as well, since these foods are high in tryptophan.

Negative Side Effects of Tryptophan

While tryptophan can help with depression and insomnia, the potential negative side effects need to be examined before using any supplements. If you experience any of the following side effects while taking tryptophan, it's important to contact your doctor immediately.

EMS (Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome)

EMS (Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome) is one of the main reasons tryptophan was recalled and banned in the U.S. back in late 80's. At the time, it was a popular health food supplement until it was linked to EMS, a highly-debilitating, systemic disease which can cause permanent damage. A manufacturing error produced a contaminant, resulting in over 1,500 cases and 27 deaths. The error was quickly corrected, and to date, there have been no additional EMS cases due to the supplement. In fact, the U.S. has since reversed the 20-year ban on the supplement.

Side effects of EMS include flu-like symptoms in the acute phase along with the following:

  • Burning rashes
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Contractures
  • Dry, thickened skin or other skin changes
  • Elevated eosinophil count (determined through a blood test)
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Intense muscle pain
  • Nerve pain
  • Spasms

As the disease progresses, it randomly attacks a variety of areas of the body. The severity of symptoms can vary among individuals.

Serotonin Syndrome

Taking tryptophan supplements can also lead to Serotonin Syndrome, which commonly occurs when people also take certain medications that result in high levels of serotonin. Too much serotonin in the body can present with unpleasant physical symptoms. If levels become extremely high, severe Serotonin Syndrome can occur and is fatal if left untreated. The good news is that once you stop taking the supplement or medication causing the problem, Serotonin Syndrome usually goes away.

Serotonin Syndrome symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty walking
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Feeling faint
  • Fever
  • Auditory and visual hallucinations
  • Hives
  • Itching
  • Muscle spasms
  • Sweating
  • Swelling of the mouth or throat

More Common Side Effects

While some of the above side effects are dangerous enough to be considered life-threatening, tryptophan is also known to manifest milder side effects considered to be more bothersome than dangerous.

These include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Diarrhea
  • Drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Gas
  • Headaches
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Light headedness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting

Contraindications

Risks for side effects and developing Serotonin Syndrome increase greatly when tryptophan is taken in combination with antidepressants, including MAOIs, TCAs, NSRIs and SSRIs. It is also suggested to not take tryptophan if you take lithium, tramadol or triptans used to treat migraine headaches.

Is a Tryptophan Supplement Right For You?

Because everyone reacts differently to medication and supplements, it is important to speak with your physician about the risks and benefits of starting tryptophan supplementation. If you are experiencing symptoms such as depression or insomnia, your doctor may want to run tests to see if your problems stem from something else, such as a magnesium deficiency.

Most people do not experience any side effects from tryptophan. If you do decide to try it, stay aware of how you're feeling and stay in touch with your doctor. If you suspect any ill effects at all, no matter how minor, call your doctor immediately.

For more information, books such as Tryptophan: Biochemical and Health Implications, which provides a comprehensive overview of tryptophan, how it acts and the important role it plays in protein metabolism, can provide additional details and facts.

Side Effects of Tryptophan Supplements