Pass the mashed potatoes and tryptophan, please.
Among the months, November is one of the best. In this part of the world, the weather is very pleasant—not too hot and not too cold. But the real thing that makes November stand out from the crowd is the wonderful holiday of Thanksgiving. For 400 years, Americans have set aside a day to give thanks and to stuff their faces.
We’ve all taken part in this annual day to celebrate gluttony. We go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house and gorge ourselves on turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing or dressing, corn, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and other goodies. Then we settle in on the couch to watch the National Football League’s yearly holiday extravaganza. About midway through the first quarter, we’re all sound asleep.
Weird Uncle Harold, who considers himself an expert on everything on earth, solemnly explains as we nod off: “The reason you’re sleepy is that the turkey you just ate is loaded with tryptophan, which makes you tired.”
We’ve heard the story about turkey and tryptophan for years, but it turns out that it’s not exactly on track and Uncle Harold is wrong this time.
It is true that turkey contains tryptophan, which helps the body produce serotonin, a chemical that acts as a calming agent and plays a key role in sleep. However, many meats and other protein sources produce amounts comparable to turkey. As it turns out, turkey contains no more tryptophan than other kinds of poultry.
“Turkey actually has slightly less tryptophan than chicken,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, American Dietetic Association spokeswoman.
“Tryptophan competes with all of the body’s other amino acids to enter the brain through a strict gatekeeper known as the blood-brain barrier,” according to LiveScience. “It’s the heaps of carbohydrates—the stuffing, potatoes, and yams smothered in marshmallows—that are the true problem, according to medical experts. Consuming carbs triggers the release of insulin, which removes most amino acids from the blood, but not tryptophan—that dearth of competitors allows tryptophan to enter the brain and form serotonin.”
Any big meal containing tryptophan and lots of carbohydrates can trigger sleepiness—not just turkey. And on Thanksgiving, the average meal has about 3,000 calories. Many other factors contribute to feelings of tiredness, such as drinking alcohol.
The best way to avoid zonking out on the couch following your Thanksgiving meal is simply not to eat so much. Maybe next year…
“Thanksgiving Myth Busted: Eating Turkey Won’t Make You Sleepy,” by Tanya Lewis, LiveScience, Nov. 23, 2013.
“The Truth About Tryptophan,” by Lisa Zamosky, WebMD.
“Does Eating Turkey Make Me Sleepy?” reviewed by Steven Dowshen, M.D., KidsHealth.org, November 2016.
“Is there something in turkey that makes you sleepy?” Science/Edible Innovations, HowStuffWorks.com.
“Does Turkey Make You Sleepy?” by Coco Ballantyne, Scientific American, Nov. 21, 2007.