Tryptophan is the precursor for the neurotransmitter 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), which is involved in fatigue and sleep. It is present in bound and free form in the blood, where the concentration is controlled by albumin binding to tryptophan. An increase in plasma free tryptophan leads to an increased rate of entry of tryptophan into the brain. This should lead to a higher level of 5-HT which may cause central fatigue. Central fatigue is implicated in clinical conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and post-operative fatigue. Increased plasma free tryptophan leads to an increase in the plasma concentration ratio of free tryptophan to the branched chain amino acids (BCAA) which compete with tryptophan for entry into the brain across the blood-brain barrier.
The plasma concentrations of these amino acids were measured in chronic fatigue syndrome patients (CFS) before and after exercise (Castell et al., 1998), and in patients undergoing major surgery (Yamamoto et al., 1997). In the CFS patients, the pre-exercise concentration of plasma free tryptophan was higher than in controls (p < 0.05) but did not change during or after exercise. This might indicate an abnormally high level of brain 5-HT in CFS patients leading to persistent fatigue. In the control group, plasma free tryptophan was increased after maximal exercise (p ° 0.001), returning towards baseline levels 60 min later. The apparent failure of the CFS patients to change the plasma free tryptophan concentration or the free tryptophan/BCAA ratio during exercise may indicate increased sensitivity of brain 5-HT receptors, as has been demonstrated in other studies (Cleare et al., 1995).
In post-operative recovery after major surgery plasma free tryptophan concentrations were markedly increased compared with baseline levels; the plasma free tryptophan/BCAA concentration ratio was also increased after surgery. Plasma albumin concentrations were decreased after surgery: this may account for the increase in plasma free tryptophan levels.
Provision of BCAA has improved mental performance in athletes after endurance exercise (Blomstrand et al., 1995, 1997). It is suggested that BCAA supplementation may help to counteract the effects of an increase in plasma free tryptophan, and may thus improve the status of patients during or after some clinically stressful conditions.