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Turkey and Tryptophan: Debunking the Sleepy Myth




Thanksgiving is synonymous with family, gratitude, and of course, a lavish turkey dinner. However, there's a long-standing myth that has become almost as much a part of the tradition as the bird itself – the belief that turkey makes you sleepy due to its high tryptophan content. Let's carve into this myth and uncover the truth.


What is Tryptophan?

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning our body cannot produce it, and we must obtain it from our diet. It's a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can be converted to melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep. Tryptophan is found in various foods, including cheese, chicken, eggs, fish, milk, nuts, and of course, turkey.


The Turkey-Tryptophan-Sleep Connection

The myth that turkey causes drowsiness stems from the fact that tryptophan is involved in the production of melatonin. However, turkey doesn't contain a significantly higher amount of tryptophan compared to other meats. In fact, it contains slightly less tryptophan than chicken. So why the focus on turkey?


Debunking the Myth

The sleepiness people feel after a big Thanksgiving meal is unlikely due to the turkey itself. Here's why:

  1. Tryptophan Works Best on an Empty Stomach: Tryptophan competes with other amino acids to cross the blood-brain barrier. In a Thanksgiving meal, you're also consuming proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, which makes it harder for tryptophan to be absorbed and have a sedative effect.

  2. Carbohydrate Factor: Meals rich in carbohydrates can increase the level of serotonin in the brain, leading to a sense of relaxation and drowsiness. A traditional Thanksgiving dinner is often heavy on carbs, including mashed potatoes, stuffing, and various pies.

  3. Quantity Matters: The portion size and the richness of the meal also contribute to the feeling of sleepiness. Overeating, regardless of what you eat, can lead to a feeling of sluggishness as your body focuses on digestion.

The Bottom Line

While turkey does contain tryptophan, it's not the snooze-inducing culprit it's often made out to be. The post-Thanksgiving meal drowsiness is more likely due to the overall size and composition of the meal, along with the relaxed atmosphere of the holiday. So, this Thanksgiving, feel free to enjoy your turkey without worrying about an uncontrollable urge to nap – unless, of course, you want to!

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