Every year we hear claims that turkey, the main star of our Thanksgiving feast is causing food induced comas, but are they really the culprits? The answer is no, while Turkey does contain an amino acid called tryptophan, it isn’t enough to actually make you sleepy. Tryptophan is one essential amino acid of nine, essential meaning the body cannot produce it on its own, and these essential amino acids need to be found in our diets. The body needs Tryptophan found in food to help produce the B-vitamin niacin, which is what helps the body produce serotonin. Serotonin is the chemical best known for helping us sleep, and is often used as over the counter sleep aid. While all of this sound like turkey is the reason we feel sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner, it isn’t, studies have found over the past several years that Tryptophan has to compete with 20 other amino acids to make it past the blood-brain line. “Tryptophan is taken to the brain by an active transport system shared by a number of other amino acids [the chief components of proteins], and there’s competition among them—like a crowd of people trying to get through a revolving door,” said Simon Young, a neurochemist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. By the time tryptophan makes its way to the brain there isn’t a substantial enough amount to be the cause of our sleepiness, an average serving size of turkey only has 350 milligrams of tryptophan and in reality we need around 1,500 to make us sleepy. Also, it is well noted that chicken, fish, milk, and beans have high levels of tryptophan as well, and we don’t hear multiple reports of sleepiness or “food coma” from them.
There are a couple different reasons why we may feel the need for a Thanksgiving Day nap. This year AAA projects 93.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the Thanksgiving Holiday. Traveling alone is enough to wear people out, even more so when you add the stress of cooking a big meal, and then consuming it can tip people over the edge. While the most likely cause for feeling sleepy is the amount of carbohydrates and food we consume during Thanksgiving dinner. Americans enjoy plenty of carbohydrates during their Thanksgiving dinners such as bread, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pies. As a result the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3,000 calories. Consuming this many carbohydrates causes an increase in serotonin in the brain even though tryptophan can’t be found in the carbohydrates, unlike turkey. Lastly, many families like to enjoy alcoholic beverages with their Thanksgiving meals which can really add to the sleepiness due to its sedative effect. So there’s no need to blame the turkey, just be thankful for having a Thanksgiving Day meal, and the sleep that may come with it!
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