You might remember “The Thanksgiving Song” Adam Sandler introduced on Saturday Night Live: The lyrics go, “Turkey lurkey doo and turkey lurkey dap, I eat that turkey, then I take a nap.” Sure enough, we do get sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner, and scientists have been telling us for years that turkey contains L-tryptophan, which makes us sleepy. Let’s look at the facts.
Yes, turkey does contain L-tryptophan. A 200-calorie serving of turkey contains about 507 mg of L-tryptophan, but consider that the same amount of chicken contains almost as much, about 491 mg. You don’t hear anyone complain of sleepiness after eating a carton of chicken nuggets, do you? In fact, many other foods are much higher in tryptophan. So why has turkey gotten such a reputation as a sleep inducer? One reason is carbs.
Think about it: On Thanksgiving, all those high-carbohydrate foods we pile on our plates (mashed potatoes, stuffing, rolls and pie, oh my!) add up to a surefire recipe for sleepiness. That piece of pumpkin pie loaded with processed carbs will cause the pancreas to secrete lots of insulin, which is a hormone that enables your body to use sugar. What happens with foods loaded with sugar is that they will cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, followed by a sudden and prolonged drop that will cause sleepiness.
Carbs are also associated with the release of serotonin, a hormone that affects the mood and is linked to the onset of sleep. As a general guideline, the types of carbs you should consume are “Paleo” carbs, and you should consume the majority of them in the evening to help you sleep.
Another non-turkey cause of post-Thanksgiving meal sleepiness is simply eating too much. Eating a large meal requires a lot of blood to divert to the gastrointestinal track and away from the brain, causing you to seek the nearest comfy couch to catch a few Z’s.
There is also stress to consider in the Thanksgiving Day sleep equation. The numerous preparations involved with hosting guests, or the stress of simply being a guest, can often result in sleep deprivation that catches up to us when we finally sit down to the big meal. And if you’re traveling long distances, jet lag may affect your ability to stay alert and awake after dessert.
Then there’s alcohol – it’s not unusual after the Thanksgiving meal to sit down in front of the TV with a beer (or two) and watch football. Alcohol is a depressant and dehydrates you, two factors that can make you sleepy. In fact, alcohol may be considered the most common sleep aid – but it’s not a good idea according to research. A Japanese study published in the November 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research looked at the affects of alcohol on sleep. The authors concluded that alcohol inhibits parasympathetic nervous system and as such “interferes with the restorative functions of sleep.”
The bottom line is that eating the big bird is not the reason for post-Thanksgiving meal drowsiness, but all the other aspects associated with this holiday celebration. Now that’s something to sleep on!