Serotonin levels help explain hunger’s link to anger

By Tom Nordlie • Published: December 16th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

The word tryptophan [TRIPP-tuh-fann] might sound familiar as the holidays approach. That’s because tryptophan is an amino acid found in turkey. Many people believe that consuming large amounts of it makes you sleepy.

That’s an urban myth.

But when you don’t get enough tryptophan, it can make you cranky. An article published recently in the journal Biological Psychiatry helps explain why.

In the study, 19 healthy men and women were divided into two groups. One group drank a beverage that temporarily reduced their tryptophan levels. The other group drank a placebo.

After this, participants were shown photos of human faces with expressions that were angry, sad or neutral. As this happened, researchers tracked the participants’ brain activity.

Among the group with lowered tryptophan levels, looking at angry faces had a curious effect. It decreased interaction between the amygdala [uh-MIGG-duh-luh] and the prefrontal cortex [pree-FRUNN-tull CORE-tex].

Previous studies suggest that this communication breakdown leads to emotional instability, and a greater risk of reacting aggressively to unpleasant situations.

Here’s why: a neurotransmitter called serotonin [sair-uh-TONE-unn] handles communication between these two parts of the brain.

Serotonin is manufactured in the body, and its key component is… you guessed it, tryptophan.

In other words, this is scientific evidence that hunger really does make you cranky.

So, if you expect to have a stressful day, you might want to fuel up on foods rich in tryptophan. These include sunflower seeds, Parmesan cheese, cheddar cheese, eggs, poultry and red meat. So adding turkey to your holiday meal with the family is probably a good idea.

That menu won’t guarantee you keep your cool. But it’ll give you a fighting chance.

Or, perhaps we should say, a non-fighting chance.