Have you ever heard the turkey is responsible for that sleepy feeling some of us have after our Thanksgiving meal? Some say tryptophan, a substance that naturally occurs in turkey, is the culprit.
It’s true turkey contains tryptophan. It is also accurate to say tryptophan can lead to sleepiness. That’s due to its involvement in producing brain chemicals, like serotonin, that affect sleep.
However, the idea that tryptophan in the holiday bird makes us sleepy is pure myth.
With some savvy science we can debunk the Great Turkey-Tryptophan Myth and learn why many of us crash for a post-feast snooze.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid.
Essential amino acids are necessary for supporting life due to their involvement in various biochemical reactions in the body. Essential amino acids are not produced by the body, thus, we must get those from food.
Turkey is primarily made up of protein and is rich in tryptophan which explains the turkey-tryptophan connection.
Now, how about the turkey-sleep connection?
Tryptophan is involved in producing a brain chemical (serotonin) that can, in fact, make us sleepy. This is what leads to the conclusion that eating a lot of tryptophan-rich turkey on Thanksgiving makes our eyelids heavy. It seems simple.
However, before we blame the bird, let’s dig deeper for the facts. The only way tryptophan in turkey would make us sleepy is if we ate only turkey, and lots of it! At Thanksgiving, that certainly isn’t the case. For a better understanding of what does cause the need for a post-meal siesta, we need to understand the Tryptophan Paradox.
The Tryptophan Paradox
According to research, increased levels of tryptophan in the blood do not lead to increased levels of tryptophan in the brain. (Remember, more tryptophan in the brain would lead to increased serotonin, the neurochemical that modulates sleep.)