You’re slowly drifting off, the din of a football game fades into the distance as your eyes flutter closed to darkness. Your stomach is full. Your body, unceremoniously outstretched on a recliner in your aunt’s basement, is cradled in a warm, weightless bosom of poultry. A perfect equilibrium of wine and carbs has been achieved, and all is right with the world. Yes, you are experiencing a turkey nap. Brought to you in part by tryptophan. Or is it?
“While many people experience sleepiness following a Thanksgiving feast, our turkey and tryptophan aren’t necessarily the culprits,” explains Dr. Victoria Smith, associate medical director for St. Charles Parish Hospital and Primary Care for the River Region at Ochsner Health System. “Tryptophan is an amino acid that is the precursor to the brain chemical serotonin. While serotonin is connected to sleep, there is no more presence in turkey than there is in other common foods including beef, chicken, cheese, and some nuts. When your post-Thanksgiving feast fatigue occurs, it’s likely due to overeating of carbohydrates and, in some cases, consumption of alcohol.”
While the assertion is frequently made that turkey has a particularly high abundance of tryptophan that knocks you out, the content is actually typical for any poultry. But there’s a missing piece that allows tryptophan to easily enter the brain, and that’s eating carbohydrates. And from looking at you, eating thirds on stuffing. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s sleep.org, “Carbohydrates cause your body to release insulin, which removes all amino acids—except tryptophan—from your blood. That means that tryptophan has no competition and can enter the brain easily, boosting serotonin levels.”
Twist! It appears turkey has been unfairly maligned as nap catalyst supreme all these years. Everyone’s favorite carb-laden side dishes, not to mention the sheer volume of food and alcohol typically put away at a holiday meal, are the real culprits.