With Turkey Day right around the corner, most of us are digging out our stretchiest sweat pants and scoping out our napping spot for after the big meal. But what makes us so sleepy after our Thanksgiving dinner? Grandma always said it was that turkey with all of its “tryptophan” that made Grandpa snore in his chair after the big dinner. But was she right? Is it the turkey and its tryptophan that makes us tired?
L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is used by the body to make niacin, a B vitamin that is important for digestion, skin, nerves, and the creation of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and relaxed. It’s also used to make melatonin, which is a hormone that controls our sleep and wake cycles. So it makes sense to thing that if turkey has tryptophan, which helps make serotonin, which helps make melatonin, which helps us sleep…then turkey must make us sleepy.
But here are the facts:
- Turkey doesn’t contain more tryptophan than other kinds of poultry. Turkey actually has less tryptophan than chicken.
- A small, all-carbohydrate snack (no more than 30grams of carbs) in combination with tryptophan stored in your body from food you’ve already eaten will give you the biggest boost of serotonin.
- When you eat proteins, many types of amino acids, not just tryptophan, are competing to get through the blood-brain barrier. So not much of it usually makes it through at once.
- When you eat carbohydrates with your proteins, like mashed potatoes, the pancreas releases insulin which acts to decrease the levels of all of the amino acids in your blood, except tryptophan. This means that there is now a relatively higher concentration of tryptophan in your blood than of other amino acids and so it can get to your brain easier to make more serotonin.
- High fat, high carb, high sugar foods trigger the parasympathetic nervous system which stimulates our desire for “rest and digest.”
- High glucose can cause sleepiness through a number of mechanisms, including the blood sugar crash that comes a few hours after eating.
So bottom line… overeating, especially the carbs (like mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, dessert, alcohol, soda…you know, all the GOOOOD stuff), is the biggest contributor to the “food coma” that we all experience after the feast.
So what can you do to stay a little more alert (and feel better the rest of the day)?
- Eat a protein rich breakfast…so you’re not as likely to binge later at dinner.
- Lighten the carb load…have some extra turkey or other protein and back off all of the starchy sides.
- Skip the booze…alcohol is a depressant and slows digestion. It won’t help your fatigue.
- Get moving…help with the dishes or go for a walk after dinner to help get your digestion moving.
Check out this link for Thanksgiving Nutrition Myths: