A Brief History of Tryptophan Deficiency

by Michael Locklear

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is needed to produce niacin (vitamin B3) and serotonin. It helps to fight depression and insomnia, relieves stress, helps with migraines, and stabilizes mood. According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, a deficiency of tryptophan led to relapses in people with bulimia.

In order to make serotonin, our brains must have a balanced ratio of tryptophan to Large Neutral Amino Acids (LNAAs), such as phenylalanine. LNAAs and tryptophan must compete for access to our neurons because they both cross the blood-brain barrier.

If we do not consume enough tryptophan, our brains are less able to make serotonin. According to researchers at Palermo University, Department of Cultural, Historical-Archaeological, Socio-Anthropological and Geographical Heritage, serotonin deficiency can lead to tendencies toward aggressive behavior, increases in competition between members of the same group, and religious fanaticism.

Lead study author Michael Ernandes links the Aztec consumption of maize, a low tryptophan-to-LNAA ratio food, to their practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism. History reveals that there were rises in cannibalism during the time of year when the Aztecs depended on maize more heavily. Ernandes believes that serotonin deficiency among the Aztecs was a leading cause of their aggressive and religious behaviors. On the other hand, the biological need for tryptophan may have unconsciously led them to cannibalism in order to get the tryptophan from human proteins.

Additionally, states Ernandes, the brutally violent and bloody Circensian games of Imperial Rome may have been established as a result of serotonin deficiency. It was said that the Emperor gave people “panem et circenses,” in other words “bread and Circensian games.” Ernandes notes that the amino acid content of bread may reduce serotonin and increase dopamine levels, which may have enhanced aggression and competitiveness between the Romans.

Because of the activity of mirror neurons, the Roman spectators felt like they were participating in the games. According to Ernandes, serotonin deficiency and an overabundance of dopamine enhances people’s ability to identify with other people’s aggression and reduces the ability to identify with other people’s suffering.

In the United States, bread and corn are two of the most commonly consumed foods. Corn-based additives abound in our processed foods, and in the majority of households, bread is served with every meal. It is no surprise that we are aggressive, angry, and addicted to violent movies and television shows. By age eighteen, the average American has already witnessed 16 thousand simulated murders and 200 thousand acts of violence, according to the American Psychological Association.

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