by Dr. Desirea D. Caucci, PT, DPT, OCS - Physical Therapist and Co-owner
If your family is anything like mine then you all fall asleep soon after eating that big feast on Thanksgiving, (or you want to!). Most of us eat a delicious meal of turkey and other side dishes like mashed potatoes (regular and sweet), stuffing, cranberry sauce, corn, and of course pie for dessert. Is the hype about the tiredness related to eating turkey true? I did some research and I have the answer…
Thanksgiving turkey does have the makings of a natural sedative in it, the amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning that the body can't manufacture it by itself; the body has to get tryptophan and other essential amino acids from food.
Tryptophan is also found in dairy products, beef, poultry, barley, brown rice, fish, soybeans, and peanuts. Once in the body, tryptophan helps produce the B-vitamin, niacin, which in turn, helps the body produce serotonin, a chemical that acts as a calming agent in the brain and plays a key role in sleep.
So we have heard and we believe that if we eat a lot of turkey, our bodies will produce more serotonin, making us feel more tired than normal. That was the conclusion that led many people to begin taking a dietary supplement of tryptophan in the 1980s as a way to treat insomnia.
But, the FDA banned tryptophan supplements in 1990 because of an outbreak of a syndrome that causes muscle pain and even death. Of course, this does not mean that the tryptophan that occurs naturally in foods like turkey, is harmful! The levels of tryptophan in a turkey dinner are far, far too low to have such an effect.
The key reason our Thanksgiving turkeys may not be making us sleepy is that tryptophan works on an empty stomach. The tryptophan we ingest on Thanksgiving has to compete with all of the other amino acids that the body is digesting (and on Thanksgiving that’s a lot of competition!). So, not all of the tryptophan can even be utilized.
It is more likely that the whole Thanksgiving meal is producing that after-dinner lethargy. The meal is quite often heavy and high in carbohydrates and our bodies are working hard to digest all that food. After all, the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3,000 calories and 229 grams of fat. If you drink alcohol with your dinner, you'll likely feel its sedative effect, in addition!
However, there is a way to take advantage of the tryptophan in turkey. If you have trouble getting to sleep one night while there's still leftover turkey in the fridge, you could have a late snack of turkey and that might be the right amount of tryptophan on an empty stomach to help produce more serotonin to make you drowsy.
So, even though the mass media like to hype it and blame post holiday meal sleepiness on the turkey dinner... that's just a catchy tale, not the reality. The trypophan isn't to blame for the sudden drowsiness that hits right after the meal when the football games come on, and the dishes are waiting to be done!
On the bright side, more evidence suggests that caffeine is not only not bad for you; it actually helps many brain functions, alertness, learning, memory and countering Alzheimers. So have an extra cup of coffee or tea with dessert to counteract the drowsiness!