Don't blame your Thanksgiving turkey for feeling sleepy today

Nov 242016
Tamara Kaye Sellman, RPSGT, CCSH

excessive daytime sleepiness, tryptophan, insulin resistance

It's easy to blame the Thanksgiving turkey for causing your late-day lethargy on this day of feasting. After all, the poor bird can't speak for itself, and it's the centerpiece of most holiday meals in the United States. 

We believe our nationally shared "food coma" on the last Thursday in November is directly caused by an overdose of tryptophan in our bloodstream. 

However, the myth of the turkey as the cause of Thanksgiving day fatigue and sleepiness has been busted, soundly and repeatedly, by scientists. 

Yes, turkey has tryptophan. And yes, tryptophan, in the right amounts, and consumed in a specific way, can make you sleepy. 

But our shared Thanksgiving day "food coma" can hardly be blamed on a roasted bird.


What is tryptophan?

This is a substance in our body that we need, but which we cannot manufacture ourselves. It's an essential amino acid, and we rely on dietary sources to provide it. 

Its job is to regulate certain chemicals in our bodies. For instance, tryptophan is critical for helping us to process serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter we produce in order to regulate our moods.

Tryptophan is important because it helps our brains to convert some of our serotonin supply into melatonin. As we've already discussed here, melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep. 

Tryptophan itself could make us sleepy if it's consumed without any other food and on an empty stomach. But does that happen on Thanksgiving Day? Hardly.

Turkey may be erroneously blamed for an overdose of sleepiness on Thanksgiving Day because it supplies tryptophan, but it's not our only source. Pork, chicken, fish, cheese, yogurt, eggs, and nuts also supply us with this substance.

(Let's look at tryptophan in a different context. In Seattle, you don't see people tailgating prior to Seahawks home games—eating pulled pork, barbecued chicken, smoked salmon, or real cheese nachos—then sliding off to nap at halftime at CenturyLink field.) 

The fact is, turkey also contains other amino acids which serve to counteract the effects of tryptophan, so we really can't blame it for feeling sleepy.

Even vegetarians have no means for escape: soybeans are one of the highest food sources of tryptophan!

So, what makes us sleepy on Thanksgiving Day?

Here are a few explanations for that need to nap after an early feast: 

If you're tired at the end of the big day, take heart! Your body is merely doing its job. After all, just because it's Thanksgiving doesn't mean your body is also on holiday.

Instead, it's telling you, through various signals, that you've eaten enough... enough!... too much!! The next thing you know, you're loosening your belt buckle. (Learn more about how overeating impacts sleep health here.)

You feel full and sleepy because you ignored your body's messages to stop eating all that delicious food, and your body is now in metabolic overload. Resting is its way to facilitate digesting and correcting imbalances in blood sugar and insulin.

So take that nap. It'll do your body good. (Or better yet, don't overeat on Thanksgiving!) 


Loyola University Health System
The New York Times

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