In the last two weeks, I’ve had about a million people ask me if turkey can make you tired. Let me tell you, all at once, that turkey dinners have received an unwarranted reputation. It’s true that turkey contains an amino acid by the name of tryptophan. It’s also true that tryptophan is known for inducing sleep. Logically, one could come to the conclusion that turkey’s tryptophan makes you tired after Thanksgiving dinner. Scientifically, your post-feast fatigue is more likely derived from different sources.
In order to induce sleep, large amounts of tryptophan must reach the body’s neuro-center, the brain. To accomplish this, the tryptophan must be taken on an empty stomach. When consumed as part of a meal (like your Thanksgiving feast) tryptophan simply cannot produce sleep-inducing effects. According to National Geographic News, “Turkey isn’t even unusually high in tryptophan. Many foods, such as beef or soybeans, boast higher concentrations.” Given the facts, it’s still impossible to ignore the after-dinner burnout that Americans face on Thanksgiving Day.
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Who here hasn’t had suffered from a food coma a time or two? Well, some history is not worth repeating. Take it from me, you can have fun, enjoy all the Thanksgiving harvest, and still fit into your jeans the next day. But how do you avoid this whole “food coma” thing? It starts with understanding what makes you feel that way. There’s a couple things going on and it’s hormonal.
Tryptophan, Serotonin and Melatonin
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid (protein building block the body cannot make). It is high in many protein rich foods, like turkey. Tryptophan helps build muscle like other amino acids, but it is also a specific precursor of serotonin. Nearly all serotonin is in the gut where it regulates GI movement, but about 20% is actually dispersed in the central nervous system (CNS) where it regulates mood, appetite, sleep, muscle contraction, and some cognitive functions including memory and learning. Some serotonin can become melatonin, which regulates your sleep/wake cycles.
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On Thanksgiving, I will be surrounded by 40-50 family members. After we share our feast from appetizers to desserts, several of us will find a spot in front of the television to watch football and doze through commercials. Although I would like to see the Lions hand the Titans another loss (I am a true blue Colts fan!), surrendering to “turkey-daze” is part of the holiday, right? It is commonly believed that the tryptophan in turkey induces sleepiness; however, there is more to our holiday drowsiness than this one chemical.
Tryptophan is one of ten amino acids that the body cannot manufacture on its own and must be supplemented through diet. Tryptophan aids in the production of the B-vitamin niacin which then assists the body’s production of serotonin. Serotonin helps us regulate mood, aggression, anxiety, impulsiveness, body temperature, appetite, and sleep. However serotonin cannot cross the blood brain barrier, meaning we cannot create more serotonin in our bodies.
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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I know that most nutritionists would tell you to not overdo it on Turkey Day. But, I’m of the opinion that it’s OK to let loose once in a while. So, enjoy seconds of that juicy turkey. MSN.com has an article that addresses the notion that turkey makes us sleepy. Does tryptophan really make you tired? It may be more about how much you’re eating than anything.