L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid which is the metabolic precursor of serotonin. Because of the evidence that serotonin deficiency may be an aetiological factor in some sorts of affective disorder and that serotonin is important in the biochemistry of sleep, L-tryptophan has been suggested as a "rational" anti-depressant and as a "natural" hypnotic. This paper reviews the biochemistry and pharmacology of L-tryptophan as well as the literature of the clinical trials that have been conducted with it and suggests that, by itself, L-tryptophan may be useful in mild cases of depression accompanied by endogenous features and cases of bipolar disorder resistant to standard treatments. It also potentiates the monoamine oxidase inhibitors and possibly the serotonergic tricyclic drugs. L-tryptophan may improve the depressed mood of Parkinsonian patients and has a clinically useful hypnotic action. There is evidence it may be useful in organic mental disorders induced by levodopa. Dosage schedules, contraindications and complications are discussed.