Happy Thanksgiving and “Does eating Turkey make you sleepy?”

By Rich Maloof for MSN Health & Fitness
Reality Check

Tired? Don’t blame the turkey.

There can be many reasons to drift off on Thanksgiving Day, but eating turkey isn’t really one of them. The amino acid L-tryptophan in turkey is popularly cited as a kind of dietary sedative, but nutritionist Samantha Heller lays bare the urban myth.

“L-tryptophan is the chemical precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, a calming agent in the brain,” says Heller. “Eating foods that contain tryptophan therefore can increase serotonin and, in some instances, make you sleepy. But tryptophan only has a noticeable ‘sleepy’ effect if it is taken on an empty stomach [unlikely at Thanksgiving!] with no other protein in the meal. Post-dinner lethargy is more likely due to too much food, alcohol or Uncle George’s 400th telling of the time he almost fell in a sink hole.”

L-tryptophan is also found in eggs, milk, bananas and yogurt—and you don’t see people eating healthy breakfasts and then passing out in a Barcalounger.

Reality Check

Drinking and overeating are more likely to make you sleepy.

Heller notes that knocking back an extra glass of wine can make people feel tired, though alcohol ultimately disturbs various phases of sleep; you might nod off early, but you’re more likely to be sleepless later in the night.

It’s the type of food we eat at Thanksgiving—and the sheer volume of it—that finds us struggling to stay awake for pumpkin pie. “It takes a great deal of energy to digest a large meal,” explains Sari Greaves, a registered dietician with New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “When your stomach is full, blood is directed away from other organ systems to your digestive system. Since you have less blood flow elsewhere, you will feel the need to snooze after any big meal, particularly if it is high in fat.

“Secondly,” she continues, “a traditional Thanksgiving meal is heavy and high in carbohydrates, from the mashed potatoes to the bread stuffing and pie. A carbohydrate-rich [as opposed to protein-rich] meal increases production of the sleep-promoting chemical serotonin in the brain.”

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