The turkey feast is over, but the dishes aren’t even done yet and people are commenting about how they just want to take a nap. Uncle John is already on the recliner with his pants unbuckled “watching football.” That’s when someone inevitably starts talking about the tryptophan in the turkey. Does the tryptophan in turkey cause sleepiness? We are busting the turkey coma myth today.
Does Tryptophan in Turkey Cause Sleepiness?
What’s tryptophan? It’s an amino acid that’s the building block of protein that is found in many foods especially animal proteins like turkey. You will hear people talk about how tryptophan converts to serotonin which converts to melatonin which makes you sleepy. This is true but there is a whole lot of other stuff that complicates this story, like how the body uses amino acids and if that melatonin makes it through the blood brain barrier. So, is there tryptophan in turkey? Yes, there is. That is 100% fact. There is undoubtedly tryptophan in turkey. Is it what’s causing your turkey coma?
Do you get sleep every time you have a chicken breast sandwich or a spinach salad with sesame seeds on top? Other protein foods like chicken and pork chops have similar amounts of tryptophan in them as turkey. Turkey is actually number 55 on the list of foods with the most tryptophan in them. Foods like elk, spinach, and sesame seeds top the list of foods with the highest amount of tryptophan. Soybeans, nuts, salmon, and beans are other great sources of tryptophan for those who are trying to boost their serotonin levels. But do people talk about how tired these foods make them? No! The turkey isn’t making you sleepy either!
The Actual Cause of the Turkey Coma
So, what’s happening here that makes everybody sleepy on Thanksgiving? We all shovel in more food than we usually would. With so much food we all have to pile a lot onto our plate. And you can’t skip Aunt Martha’s Jell-O fluff that would be rude. You have to take a bit of everything. After that, how often do you go back up for seconds and thirds? What’s usually on that plate is not turkey. It’s the heavy carbs like mashed potatoes, cheesy potatoes, pumpkin pie, and rolls….more potatoes. Those heavy carbs are what’s helping make this whole sleepy process easier and the sheer amount of what you just ate.
Your body is like, “Whoa, buddy let’s sit back unbuckle our pants and take this all in.” Your body is literally telling you to stop. You just overwhelmed your digestive tract! So, you get tired because your body wants you to rest and digest. If you follow us, you have heard of fight or flight mode. Rest and digest is the opposite of fight or flight. We call it the parasympathetic response, where your digestion is increased, blood flow is diverted to the internal organs, the heart rate is slowed, and sleep is initiated. Why? So, your body can digest all that food. It takes energy!
Yes, you get tired because your body needs energy to digest all this food. It doesn’t want you to go out and do anything active because it needs to go through that digestive process. The alcohol and comforting people that you are surrounded by can help make it easier to take a nap too. Tryptophan isn’t the cause of your turkey coma. In the end does it matter? Slow down on all the heavy foods and enjoy your nap!
Written by Dr. Jesse Anderson