Once a year the Thanksgiving holiday is time spent with family and eating a large meal. After stuffing yourself much like a turkey at the center of this holiday, you notice yourself feeling extra sleepy. Most people have heard at some point in their lives this fatigue is due to the turkey containing tryptophan, a chemical that can make you tired. So is your mealtime bird to blame for your sleepiness? After a little research we found some answers to this popular holiday question.
So, what exactly is tryptophan? L-tryptophan is an “essential amino acid” that the human body cannot make on its own . Therefore your diet must supply it. Amino acids are the “building blocks” of proteins. Tryptophan is found in turkey, other types of poultry, cheese, yogurt, meat, eggs and fish. Tryptophan is then used by the body to make the B-vitamin niacin which is vital for digestion, healthy nerves and skin, and production of the brain chemical serotonin. Serotonin is the chemical responsible for our moods and also can create feelings of happiness and relaxation. Serotonin is also used to make melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep cycles. So is your Thanksgiving turkey packed full of this sleep-inducing amino acid? Nope! Holding the turkey responsible for your holiday nap is just a Thanksgiving myth. So is the fact that eating foods high in tryptophan boost brain levels of tryptophan, therefore boosting brain levels of serotonin. In fact, turkey contains slightly less L-tryptophan than chicken. Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, states that, “Proteins high in tryptophan require assistance from foods high in carbohydrates to affect serotonin levels”. She goes on to explain when you eat a protein-rich food, “Tryptophan has to compete with all these other amino acids. It waits in line to get through the blood-brain barrier and very little of it makes it across. The small, all-carbohydrate snack is tryptophan’s ticket across the blood-brain barrier, where it can boost serotonin levels”. “So have your turkey,” Somer says, “because it will increase your store of tryptophan in the body, but count on the carbohydrates to help give you the mood boost or the restful sleep”.
So if eating turkey isn’t the culprit of our holiday sleepiness, then what causes that sudden onset of grogginess when mealtime is over? According to Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, LDN “It boils down to Thanksgiving being a time when people overeat. When people overeat food, the digestion process takes a lot of energy. Don’t incriminate the turkey that you ate,” she says of post-Thanksgiving meal fatigue, “incriminate the three plates of food that you piled high.” Also keep in mind that the holidays usually mean time off from work and time spent with family so most people feel more relaxed to begin with, family wars not withstanding. Then if alcohol gets added to the mix, you can count on a sleepy afternoon to follow. So enjoy your entire Thanksgiving meal without blaming the turkey for your sleepiness and enjoy an afternoon of relaxation as well!