Evaluation of l-tryptophan for treatment of insomnia: A review

Abstract

Sleep laboratory and outpatient studies of the hypnotic efficacy of the amino acid l-tryptophan are reviewed, with particular emphasis on evaluation of therapeutic effectiveness in the treatment of insomnia. In younger situational insomniacs, whose sleep problem consists solely of longer than usual sleep latencies, l-tryptophan is effective in reducing sleep onset time on the first night of administration in doses ranging from 1 to 15 g. In more chronic, well-established sleep-onset insomnia or in more severe insomnias characterized by both sleep onset and sleep maintenance problems, repeated administration of low doses of l-tryptophan over time may be required for therapeutic improvement. In these patients, hypnotic effects appear late in the treatment period or, as shown in some studies, even after discontinuation of treatment. The improvement in sleep measures post-treatment has given rise to use of a treatment regimen known as “interval therapy”, in which l-tryptophan treatment alternates with an l-tryptophan-free interval until improvement occurs. The absence of side effects and lack of development of tolerance in long-term use are important factors in the decision to embark upon a trial of l-tryptophan treatment. In addition, l-tryptophan administration is not associated with impairment of visuomotor, cognitive, or memory performance, nor does it elevate threshold for arousal from sleep.

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Correspondence to Cheryl L. Spinweber.

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Director, Research Department, Psychiatric Clinic, Koenigsfelden, Switzerland, on sabbatical leave at the Naval Health Research Center when this manuscript was prepared

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Schneider-Helmert, D., Spinweber, C.L. Evaluation of l-tryptophan for treatment of insomnia: A review. Psychopharmacology 89, 1–7 (1986). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00175180

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Key words

  • l-Tryptophan
  • Insomnia
  • Interval therapy
  • Sleep
  • Human
  • Disorder of Initiating and Maintaining Sleep (DIMS)