Uncovering the Truth behind the Vilification of L-Tryptophan

“Realistically, the availability of natural health products is continually under attack by big pharma and both suppliers and consumers must remain vigilant so we can maintain access.”

The controversy surrounding L-tryptophan—based on my investigation and discovery—comes from the fact that it was eliminated from the marketplace to be replaced with patented pharmaceutical drugs for market control, higher profits and because it was extremely effective. The same can be said about kava kava—we recently wrote about this—where it is obvious that pharma’s fingerprints are everywhere.

L-Tryptophan is an essential amino acid needed by the body to produce serotonin, a natural relaxer to help improve sleep patterns and used for treating certain addictions. It is also considered to be an important nutrient for those suffering from MS[1]—I also used it successfully when in clinical practice. Tryptophan was too effective: this one product replaced several drugs, it was not expensive and it was available over-the counter with no dependency or side effects, which is the exact opposite in case of pharmaceutical drugs.

The controversy surrounding L-tryptophan began in 1989 with a fatal outbreak of the rare autoimmune disease Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome (EMS). EMS disease causes fever, numbness, and rashes and affects the muscles, arms and legs. Under severe cases EMS can cause death. According to an article by William E. Crist[2] the outbreak was traced back to the Japanese engineering firm Showa Denko. Instead of fermenting their tryptophan normally, they introduced genetically engineered bacteria into the fermentation, and decreased the amount of activated carbon powder used in the purification process. These seemingly small manufacturing decisions, which were probably meant to be beneficial, were proved to be catastrophic instead.

“Various tests found out later that the implicated tryptophan dietary supplements were contaminated with dozens of substances (Hill, et al., 1993), including a topically used antibiotic which is toxic for ingestion (Barnhart, et al., 1996). The cause of adulteration was traced unmistakably to a single supplement manufacturer in Japan, Showa Denko K. K. (Slutsker, et al., 1990; Hill, et al., 1993; Back, et al., 1993; Henning, et al., 1993; Mayeno & Gleich, 1994; kilbourne, et al., 1996).”[3]

Genetic modification or genetic engineering includes artificial insertion of genetic material leading to numerous mutations and the introduction of new toxicants, such as allergens and carcinogens. On the surface GMOs appear to look fine yet with further investigation, if you understand the science, they cause “inflammation in the body which raises the risk of allergies, autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, diabetes, cancer, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s disease, and many other illnesses (Antoniou, 2012; Séralini, et al., 2012; Smith, 2012).”[4]  Is it any wonder why a perfectly natural amino acid could turn so violent? The nature of the beast so to say overtook the characteristics of L-tryptophan to create a monster.

The problem is that any natural occurring substance including L-tryptophan, sold in the marketplace is allowed to be genetically altered without any safety testing required based on assumption that if other firms had been selling the supplement produced in non-genetically engineered bacteria for years without ill effects. The unfair penalty if side effects occur from the GE version both the non-GE and the GE are treated on the same level. This same logic is reminiscent of an emergency use authorization given for an experimental medical procedure to replace an established medical procedure in 2020, which allows using a substance or product without first demonstrating safety testing.

According to Crist, the FDA displayed a disinterest in getting the GMO-tainted L-tryptophan samples. Apparently, the FDA kept quiet for a long time about their knowledge of the involvement of GE bacteria, probably to protect the powerful GMO industry.

Previously to this incident tryptophan had never reported any EMS-related symptoms. However, those who were unfortunate enough to receive the “bad batch” from 1989 reported major health issues. Several of those who developed EMS from the contaminated tryptophan sued the Japanese manufacturer. Although a settlement of $2 billion was eventually reached, this uproar resulted in an FDA mandate banning the sale of tryptophan in the US. Before discovering all the manufacturing facts, some of the media published the “health risks” of taking tryptophan, fueling the fires of panic.

In time the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition studied amino acid supplementation and concluded that L-tryptophan was safe after all. In 1996, it could once again be obtained in the US but now only by prescription, and Canada similarly followed suit via prescription. The damage was already done; consumer confidence for L-tryptophan was shattered, and, because doctors knew little to nothing about the virtues of L-tryptophan, its sales died and multiple replacement drugs was administered.

In December, 2011 L-tryptophan was finally released from Schedule F (prescription status) in Canada. Because I knew the importance and health benefits of L-tryptophan in clinical practice, Life Choice was the first company to obtain licensing and to legally introduce L-Tryptophan into the Canadian marketplace, but with a hitch: the former dosage was 500mg, now the oral dosage was reduced to just 220mg once per day. I immediately knew the licensing was given solely for a placebo effect when considering that the tryptophan raw materials coming from China were produced from feed grade material and chemically extracted with minimal enzyme activity since it required further conversion with the body, thus depleting the body’s limited enzyme supply. At best the 220mg would only deliver 73mg and be non-therapeutic.

Another factor that must be considered is absorption, L-tryptophan requires adequate amounts of available B6 within the blood stream and since B6 is water soluble, reserve amounts are not available and will not cross the blood-brain barrier. I had seen this dilemma before submitting licensing so to counteract this lower dosage we sourced from USP pharmaceutical grade produced by natural fermentation delivering up to 30 enzymes, making it free form for cellular absorption. To ensure passing the blood-brain-barrier (BBB) we added 50mg of the methylated version of B6, P5P. The pyridoxine version in higher dosages could cause side effects; the P5P version is safe even for infants. These steps are critical for effectiveness and to obtain the full 220mg absorption of L-tryptophan.

Health benefits of L-tryptophan

  • used by the pineal gland within the brain to produce serotonin,
  • a necessary neurotransmitter which transfers nerve impulses from cell to cell,
  • helps to combat depression and insomnia and to stabilize moods,
  • helps to control hyperactivity in children, alleviates stress, benefits the heart, aids in weight control as an appetite suppressant, and enhances the release of growth hormone
  • a lack of tryptophan and magnesium may contribute to coronary artery spasms or irregular heartbeats; supplementation can conceivably reduce heart attacks,
  • L-tryptophan does not work by drugging or depressing the central nervous system, it simply returns normal function by being available for the body to use as needed,
  • protein meals can depress the brain levels of L-tryptophan since they compete with various other amino acids for uptake.

Sadly, the L-tryptophan that you will find in the general marketplace is derived from feed grade raw materials, by chemical extraction process and not by fermentation, sourced from horse or human hair, duck feathers or sewage sludge, not suitable for vegans and does not contain B6 to cross the BBB. Using the Life Choice brand Canadians can use natural alternatives that provide great results without harmful pharmaceutical side effects—and finally, as a bonus, no prescription is required. In retrospect, it is a shame that it took all these years to bring L-tryptophan to the marketplace and the dosage should not have been lowered, yet the unsubstantiated stigma remains to lessen its use.

Realistically, the availability of natural health products is continually under attack by big pharma and both suppliers and consumers must remain vigilant so we can maintain access. Steps taken as in the case of L-tryptophan provide some encouragement, especially when the truth is revealed though education to bring enlightenment. Proactively, Life Choice—in the spirit of cooperation with the natural health industry—is working together for the optimal health of all consumers.

Additional Reading from Eldon Dahl, DNM.:


[1] Amirkhani, A. et. al. 2005.

[2] Crist, William E. 2005.

[3] Hefti, Rolf. 2012.

[4] Hefti, Rolf. 2012.