Don't Blame the Bird for Your Post-Thanksgiving Feast Snooze

Man holding Thanksgiving turkey on decorated platter
Man holding Thanksgiving turkey on decorated platter

Have you ever heard the turkey is responsible for that sleepy feeling some of us have after our Thanksgiving meal? Some say tryptophan, a substance that naturally occurs in turkey, is the culprit.

It's true turkey contains tryptophan. It is also accurate to say tryptophan can lead to sleepiness. That's due to its involvement in producing brain chemicals, like serotonin, that affect sleep.

However, the idea that tryptophan in the holiday bird makes us sleepy is pure myth.

With some savvy science we can debunk the Great Turkey-Tryptophan Myth and learn why many of us crash for a post-feast snooze.

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid.

Essential amino acids are necessary for supporting life due to their involvement in various biochemical reactions in the body. Essential amino acids are not produced by the body, thus, we must get those from food.

Turkey is primarily made up of protein and is rich in tryptophan which explains the turkey-tryptophan connection.

Now, how about the turkey-sleep connection?

Tryptophan is involved in producing a brain chemical (serotonin) that can, in fact, make us sleepy. This is what leads to the conclusion that eating a lot of tryptophan-rich turkey on Thanksgiving makes our eyelids heavy. It seems simple.

However, before we blame the bird, let's dig deeper for the facts. The only way tryptophan in turkey would make us sleepy is if we ate only turkey, and lots of it! At Thanksgiving, that certainly isn't the case. For a better understanding of what does cause the need for a post-meal siesta, we need to understand the Tryptophan Paradox.

The Tryptophan Paradox

According to research, increased levels of tryptophan in the blood do not lead to increased levels of tryptophan in the brain. (Remember, more tryptophan in the brain would lead to increased serotonin, the neurochemical that modulates sleep.)

That's because amino acids like tryptophan compete for space in the brain and as neurochemicals go, tryptophan isn't very aggressive. Other amino acids win the brain space most of the time.

The extra tryptophan we take in never makes it to the brain to produce excess serotonin that would cause us to feel sleepy. So, if not tryptophan, why are some of us yawning before we even leave the dinner table on Turkey Day?

What Causes the After Dinner Nap Attack?

Most holiday tables are full of carbohydrate-rich dishes. Think of the mashed potatoes, stuffing, cakes and pies. Carbohydrates increase levels of amino acids (other than tryptophan) in the brain that lead to the production of serotonin, which make us drowsy. Pair that with the fact that many of those carbohydrate-laden dishes are high in fat and we're nearing our answer.

Fat breakdown requires significant energy from our digestive tract, so more blood is directed there to do the job. That means less blood in other areas, which leads to that heavy, tired feeling we get after over-indulging. Overeating in general leads to a redirection of blood flow to the digestive tract, further increasing feelings of lethargy after a large meal.

Combine all these factors -- carbohydrate-rich dishes, high fat foods and overindulgence -- with a cocktail or two, and it becomes obvious why we might be looking for the nearest place to sleep off that turkey dinner!

(I'm not implying you shouldn't enjoy a pre-dinner toast or glass of wine with your meal, but do keep in mind alcohol depresses the central nervous system, so it can have a sedative effect.)

To help us stay alert after our Thanksgiving meal so we're able to fully enjoy our time with family and friends, we can use these helpful tips to beat post-feast fatigue.

3 Tips to Fight Post-Feast Fatigue

1. Control portion sizes.

Remember, the leftovers aren't going anywhere. If there are too many dishes to choose from at Thanksgiving dinner, select your favorites and eat a moderate portion. Save the rest for the next day's lunch . That way, you still get to try everything you want without overeating.

2. Keep fat intake to a minimum.

There's nothing wrong with having a slice of pumpkin pie with whipped topping for dessert, but after a high-fat meal, it may be a bit much. Try bargaining with yourself. Go for the green salad as a side dish with your turkey and stuffing instead of the scalloped potatoes (save those for the next day's leftovers). That way you keep fat intake down and still get to enjoy the pie!

3. Go easy on cocktails.

Sure, it's festive and fun to toast the holiday, but try these tricks to offset the sedative effects of alcohol, especially when combined with a heavy meal:

If you're having more than one cocktail, drink a glass of water in between to keep well-hydrated. This aids digestion.
Try a wine spritzer (half wine, half tonic) for a festive quaff without as much alcohol. This will also help with hydration.
Go for a post-meal walk. This increases blood flow throughout the body and aids in digestion, making you feel energized. You'll also burn off a few calories as a bonus!

Now we know the turkey's not to blame for how we feel after our Turkey Day dinner and are armed with ways to combat that sleepy feeling.

What does that mean for you -- some Black Friday shopping or more energy to tidy up around the house and get those Christmas decorations up?