The Tryptophan Myth

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It’s that time of year again, when American families feast on sweet potatoes, stuffing, pies, and of course lots and lots of turkey. After what is arguably the biggest meal of the year, many will find themselves sinking into the couch, eyelids heavy, drifting off to dreamland. Why do we feel so sleepy after a Thanksgiving feast? Is it the family football game? A belly full of food? Grandpa’s persistent stories? Every year the turkey-tryptophan myth circulates and the Thanksgiving sleepies are blamed on the bird. However, that wave of drowsiness you feel after eating has less to do with turkey and a lot more to do with the stuffing, potatoes, bread and pie.

Wait, trypto-what? Tryptophan is an essential amino acid found in turkey. Our bodies use tryptophan in a series of steps to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter in our brains that make us feel calm and happy, resulting in a sense of sleepiness. However, this blame is misplaced since the level of tryptophan found in turkey is no more than that found in chicken or beef. In fact, parmesan cheese has twice as much tryptophan than turkey gram for gram. So why do we want to curl up on the couch and nap following the massive feast? The answer lies in the carbohydrate heavy foods that accompany the turkey on your dinner plate. Carbohydrates fire up the body’s insulin production, and as a result absorb most amino acids from the bloodstream into the muscles. Like a crowded highway suddenly cleared of traffic, tryptophan can make its journey to the brain more easily without the company of competing amino acids.

That said, any large meal containing tryptophan and carbohydrates would make someone drowsy, Thanksgiving dinner being unique in the sheer quantity of carbohydrates consumed. So, in a few weeks after the meal has been gobbled up and you’ve migrated to the couch, know that the serotonin surge in your brain making you feel sleepy was a joint effort. The turkey couldn’t have done it without the help of some of its friends – mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.

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