Turkey, poultry, fish, eggs, bananas, cottage cheese, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, legumes, and dairy products. These foods might not be a component of every Thanksgiving meal, but they all have one nutrient in common when it comes to boosting our mood and supporting our sleep.


Tryptophan is an amino acid that is required for the production of several important substances within the body including vitamin B and serotonin, a precursor of melatonin (1).

When it comes to sleep, we definitely want L-tryptophan kicking around since it is required for the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that we produce in our bodies. It is involved in the regulation and maintenance of healthy sleep. Low levels have been linked to sleep disturbances such as insomnia.

Most people are familiar with or have heard of melatonin’s role in sleep. But there are other players.


Usually, we hear about serotonin in the context of mood. Indeed, this powerful chemical messenger plays a key role in feeling happy, content, and satisfied. Serotonin helps us feel grateful and good about what we have. It is also involved in the regulation of proper sleep.

Reference text for image can be found here

As we can see in the image above, the amino acid tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin via its intermediate metabolite, 5HTP.


5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), is often used as a supplement to boost serotonin levels. Depending on your current medications, it may not be appropriate or safe to take this supplement so definitely speak with your doctors about this intervention. 

Some studies show that 5-HTP supplementation increases REM sleep, but these studies are small. In some people, 5-HTP causes vivid dreams and nightmares. In others, it has been shown to alleviate night terrors. These effects are likely dose-dependent.

Eating adequate dietary sources of tryptophan with the right supporting nutrients (see image above) allows your body to produce the amount of 5-HTP that you need to get those zzzz’s and feel grateful.

Unlike melatonin or serotonin, people cannot make tryptophan in their bodies, so we must obtain it from our diet. Fortunately, tryptophan can be found in food whereas serotonin cannot.

In a very safe way, we can add foods that help support these pathways that regulate our mood and sleep.

In addition to consuming adequate amounts of tryptophan-containing foods, the availability of ingested tryptophan depends on the presence of other amino acids, macronutrient balance, and adequate nutrients such as omega 3 fats, magnesium, calcium, zinc, Vitamin C, iron, Vitamin B6, folate. This isn’t to say that you need to take these in supplement form, but it does highlight the importance of a varied diet and proper digestion in regulating our sleep and mood.

By combining foods with tryptophan with food high in antioxidants, brain levels of tryptophan may be more available, hence the benefit of consuming turkey with ample vegetables and herbs.

And that’s the magic sauce of Thanksgiving. Turkey with lots of herbed vegetables and some healthy starch, and tryptophan has its one-way ticket into the brain, where it can boost levels of vitamin B, serotonin, and melatonin.

Happy Thanksgiving, folks. Enjoy your boosted mood and restful sleep! Just remember that overeating in any capacity (ie eating too much, or eating too many high starch/low fiber carbs, etc) is also responsible for holiday sleepiness and grogginess. For some of us, this might lead to negative changes in our SHMEC. I don’t know about you, but I don’t sleep so well with an overstuffed belly. To get the most out of your holidays, stick to your personal nutritional commitments but leave a little wiggle room for something you love. I’m thinking pumpkin pie 😉 What about you?

Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash

  1. Hechtman, Leah. Clinical Naturopathic Medicine (Kindle Locations 72752-72753). Elsevier Health Sciences. Kindle Edition.