Does Tryptophan in Turkey Make People Tired on Thanksgiving?

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Tryptophan in turkeyGetty

If you’ve just eaten Thanksgiving dinner and you’re ready for a nap, you might be wondering why you’re feeling so gosh-darn tired. No matter how late you might have slept in, Thanksgiving dinner seems to make you ridiculously tired every single year. So, what gives?

You have probably heard that turkey contains something called tryptophan and that it makes you sleepy. For years, people have blamed the tryptophan in turkey for causing a much needed after-dinner slumber, but that’s actually a myth.

What Is Tryptophan, Exactly?

“L-tryptophan (the full name) is an amino acid that’s found in foods like turkey, chicken, meat, cheese, yogurt, eggs, and fish. Your body uses tryptophan and turns it into a B vitamin called niacin. Niacin plays a key role in creating serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s associated with sleep and melatonin levels (a hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycles),” reports the National Sleep Foundation.

Because of what the body does with tryptophan, it’s pretty easy to find a correlation between turkey and tiredness. However, the National Sleep Foundation goes on to say that there are other amino acids in turkey that “compete” with tryptophan when traveling to the brain — so, the reality is that it doesn’t have the easiest time getting where it is supposed to go and making you tired.

What’s Really Making Me Tired?

There is something that actually helps tryptophan get to your brain without many obstacles, however: Carbohydrates. Basically, all of those side dishes and desserts that you’re eating (think mashed potatoes and pecan pie) in addition to the main attraction are the real reason that you’re feeling tired.

“Carbohydrates cause your body to release insulin, which removes all amino acids—except tryptophan—from your blood. That means that tryptophan has no competition and can enter the brain easily, boosting serotonin levels.”

“Eating a meal full of stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and biscuits is enough to send anybody into a carb coma. When we eat all those carbs, they make our bodies produce more serotonin, a brain chemical that makes you feel happy yet groggy at the same time,” Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D.N., tells SELF.

Carbs aren’t the only thing that will make you tired on Thanksgiving Day. Whether you have one really big plate or three medium-sized portions (and then eat leftovers after everyone goes home), your body is working overtime to digest — and that can make you tired.

Can I Combat the Sleepiness?

If you don’t feel like taking a snooze on the couch at your in-laws’ place, why not head outside for a few. Offer to walk the dog or play with the kids (if it’s not too cold out). According to Livestrong, “a brisk 15-minute walk will trigger your cells to uptake glucose present in the blood for energy, making your sluggish feelings subside.”

Another way to combat sleepiness after eating is to make sure you don’t overeat.

“Enjoy the company around you and take time to eat so your brain gets the signal that you’re full,” says Ansel. The best way to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner is not to starve yourself beforehand — because then you’ll eat way too much, way too fast. Make sure you eat a good breakfast and don’t deprive yourself throughout the day.