Does it seem reasonable to you that the turkey on your Thanksgiving plate would be the cause of your post-meal narcoleptic state? We've all been told that turkey contains tryptophan, and tryptophan makes us sleepy. Well, if it's as simple as all that, why don't we crash out at our desks every time we eat a turkey sandwich at work? Let's look at the facts, and see if we can't get to the bottom of this old wives' tale. That's something to be grateful for!
Some of you may have only heard the word tryptophan described as "that chemical in turkey." To be more specific, tryptophan is an amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, one of the four classes of large molecules that make up the human body (along with nucleic acids, lipids, and carbohydrates). Our bodies naturally produce about ten amino acids, but the other ten -- the essential amino acids -- must be obtained from our diets. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, and it is found in all sorts of protein-rich foods. In fact, chicken, pork, fish, seaweed, spinach, and some cheeses all contain tryptophan in higher quantities than turkey. And if you want to eat the food with the highest known tryptophan concentration, sink your teeth into some sea lion. Yum!
It does seem to be the case that tryptophan can act as a sedative, but apparently only when it is consumed in large quantities. It is also necessary that it be ingested on an empty stomach with no other amino acids present to counter the sedative effect. Obviously, this is not the case when we eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Turkey is loaded with many different amino acids, and we definitely do not eat it alone, or on an empty stomach.
So why does this myth persist? If it's not because of the tryptophan, what is causing the inescapable food coma?
The answer is actually quite obvious. We eat too damn much on Thanksgiving. According to the American Council on Exercise, the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000+ calories. That's more food than we should be eating in one or two full days. When we eat that much, blood is shunted to our guts to aid in digestion, and our brains take a back seat. This can definitely make us feel sleepy. And let's be honest...we also drink. A lot. Wine and turkey go together like mashed potatoes and gravy. Alcohol may make the family table more tolerable, but it also makes us drunk and sleepy. In fact, Thanksgiving is the holiday with the most drunk driving fatalities, even more than New Year's Eve.
So this year, don't blame the turkey if the football game renders you unconscious. Blame the booze and all those delicious carbs.