When it comes to Thanksgiving dinner the only thing that’s harder to resist than a second helping of turkey is a post meal nap. But why is it that Thanksgiving dinner makes you so tired? For a long time, people have believed its due to the amino acid, tryptophan, which can be found in turkey. But is tryptophan really responsible for that post meal slump?

In this article we will discuss the relationship between tryptophan and sleep along with the real cause of your Thanksgiving fatigue.


What is tryptophan?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that can be found in foods like fish, milk, firm tofu, and meats like turkey and chicken. Once the amino acid, tryptophan, has been processes it turns into the b vitamin, niacin, which is a key player in serotonin production. 


Understanding tryptophan, serotonin, & melatonin synthesis 

Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin. And as most people know serotonin is a key chemical when it comes to wakefulness and positive mood, but what you may not have known is that it plays a role in sleep too. Serotonin is a precursor to melatonin which we know is the key chemical that tells out body that it’s time to sleep. Melatonin production is triggered by light & dark, so when the sun goes does and night-time sets in, our pineal glands are triggered to secrete melatonin and to make melatonin we need to have adequate levels or serotonin.

However, higher serotonin levels found in the brains dorsal raphé nucleus promotes wakefulness.

The way serotonin affects our bodies depends on where it’s being used in the body and to which receptors it is binding.


How does tryptophan affect tiredness?

So, if turkey contains tryptophan and tryptophan is turned into serotonin and serotonin is a precursor to melatonin,  then why isn’t tryptophan responsible for you feeling tired right after Thanksgiving Dinner?

Well the answer to this question is time. Tryptophan does boost your serotonin levels, but while awake, it takes a time for the body to build up sleep pressure (homeostatic sleep drive) to really allow serotonin to take affect on sleep. Additionally, tryptophan is not the only amino acid that can be found in your turkey and it certainly isn’t the most common. Because of its low volume compared to other amino acids your body doesn’t processes it quickly.

Tryptophan may not work quickly, but is an important amino acid to put into your body. Tryptophan leads to serotonin production and serotonin is a key hormone when it comes to regulating your body. Serotonin helps regulate your mood and it is a key player when it comes to your sleeping, eating, and digestion.


Why do we get tired after thanksgiving dinner?

So, if tryptophan isn’t the culprit when it comes to your food coma then what is?

Well it turns out the biggest culprit is digestion. After you eat a big meal your body has to digest all of that food and digestion isn’t an easy task. When we eat our stomach produces gastrin, a hormone that promotes digestion. As food begins to enter our intestines your gut secretes even more hormones to help your body process your meal. One of these hormones (enterogastrone) pulls the blood away from your extremities so it can transport the newly digested chemicals in your body.

When blood is pulled away from your limbs for digestion it leaves many people feeling tired or light headed which can lead to an unexpected nap.

Now the size of your meal isn’t the only contributing factor. The foods you eat can also play an important role in how you feel after your meal.

Scientists have been studying the effects of different foods on people for years now and one thing they can agree on is that high fat and high protein meals are more likely to leave you feeling sleepy.


Tips to avoid a “Turkey-coma”

When it comes to avoiding a potential food coma there are a few simple steps you can take.

  1. The first step is to use a smaller plate. By using a small plate you can trick you mind into thinking you are eating more. This can lead to a feeling of fullness without eating as much as everyone else.
  2. It also helps to eat slowly. Try and strike up a conversation or put your fork down after each bite. It takes your body about 20 minutes to mentally process whether you are really full. By eating slowly you can make sure that you aren’t overeating before your brain can process that you are actually full.
  3. Another great tip is to simply eat healthier. By focusing on the vegetables or a salad you will be able to fill your stomach faster. Most greens are less dense than proteins or fatty foods so you can eat more volume while consuming less actual calories in your meal.


The Takeaway

When it comes to thanksgiving dinner the most important thing is always spending time with family and its hard to spend time with family when you desperately need a nap.

Whether you have turkey or not wont make a difference as long as you are not over eating! By watching your portion size you can be sure to have as much energy as possible for the people who are most important to you!

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