Immune Health and Neurotransmitter Function: What You Need to Know

Fun fact: a hijacked immune system means hijacked neurotransmitters, especially in the case of tryptophan.

The primary pathway for tryptophan metabolism in the body is the kynurenine pathway, needed for supporting inflammation and immune function in case of virus or infection. In fact, tryptophan is so crucial for fighting inflammation that a recent study on mice found that mice who consumed diets low of tryptophan have altered gut bacteria and increased inflammation.

Tryptophan is needed for so many functions in the body. We need tryptophan to make serotonin, which definitely has an impact on mental well-being. We need it for sleep support, as serotonin flips the switch to melatonin at night, and we even need tryptophan to regulate GI function.

Tryptophan plays an important role for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as well, so if the immune system is under attack, or the body is dealing with any other threat, tryptophan may not be available to support mood health. This is often referred to as the “tryptophan steal.” Some studies even suggest supplementing with tryptophan may be just as effective as taking an antidepressant to ward of seasonal depression. This make sense, because SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) work on the synapses of the brain to keep serotonin available for longer. If the body isn’t getting tryptophan to make serotonin, there isn’t much available to “inhibit reuptake.”

You can support tryptophan by focusing on getting more tryptophan rich food into your diet or by taking a tryptophan supplement, but I advise you to check with a professional before adding in a supplement like tryptophan.

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Tryptophan-rich foods I love and how I incorporate them:

Bananas – Not only do they contain tryptophan, they are a great source of B6, needed for the metabolism of tryptophan. I love having bananas on hand to eat with peanut butter, throw in a smoothie, or add to oatmeal or chia pudding. Which leads to…

Oats – I love making overnight oats, using a cup of liquid, 1/4 cup oats, nuts and seeds, protein powder, all mixed in a jar and put in the fridge overnight or for a few hours. I also love making power balls with a mixture of oats, peanut butter, honey, and other add-ins like coconut and chocolate chips. My boys help me roll the mixture into balls and set in fridge. Usually it gets eaten immediately!

Chocolate – The darker the chocolate, the higher the amount of antioxidants and tryptophan. I love a square in the evening, or mid-afternoon if I’m having a craving for something comforting. I love dipping a square in organic peanut butter (with one ingredient: peanuts).

Dairy – This is when quality goes a long way. For those who can tolerate dairy, looking for full fat, grass-fed and organic dairy will give the most nutrient value. Because dairy is such a staple in the American diet, I don’t need to specify how to incorporate it. But be sure you tolerate it well and the quality is top notch, or you won’t be getting the full benefits.

Tuna – Quality is extremely important in all seafood, due to water contamination. Look for wild-caught, sustainable versons, especially when you’re looking for shelf stable tuna to mix as tuna salad.

Various nuts and seeds – Pumpkin seeds are great sources to throw on a salad, while I love adding chia and flax seeds to my kids’ oatmeal or yogurt. Cashews and pistachios have more tryptophan than peanuts, but organic peanut butter is such a great quick source and can be added to anything to up the flavor (I’ve even drizzled it onto my stir fry dishes).

Chicken/Turkey – Always look for pasture-raised, antibiotic-free sources. For turkey, this is particularly challenging, so I usually stick to chicken.

Because we are in the middle of cold/flu season, our bodies are constantly fighting viruses and our immune systems are more vigilant than ever. Those with more adipose tissue will carry a higher viral load, so it is extremely important to load up on tryptophan-rich foods as much as possible.

If you’re curious to know more about tryptophan and how to supplement with it, message me. I’d love to support you as you support your neurotransmitters this season!