Technically, Thanksgiving commemorates the day when pilgrims and Native Americans joined together to celebrate the autumn harvest. At my house though, Thanksgiving becomes an excuse to indulge in a great meal, watch professional football and catch some extra Zzz’s on the couch.
The excessive sleepiness that dominates this holiday has often been tied to a nutrient in turkey called tryptophan (trip-toe-fan). Even though our late-afternoon nap typically occurs right after the Thanksgiving feast, it’s probably not the turkey that’s making us drowsy. It’s more likely the carbohydrate-rich stuffing and mashed potatoes we just gobbled down.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that’s found in many protein-rich foods, like turkey. But if it was the turkey that was making us tired, we’d be nodding off every time we ate chicken, beef or certain kinds of fish too, since these foods contain similar amounts of this amino acid.
Now let’s talk science. Tryptophan is a precursor to a chemical substance called serotonin that acts on the nervous system. When tryptophan enters the brain, it’s converted to serotonin, which can make us feel calm and relaxed in large enough amounts. However, it’s actually a meal high in carbs that initiates this process. Large portions of carbohydrates cause a spike in insulin levels in our body, which makes tryptophan more available to the brain for conversion into sleep-inducing serotonin. Therefore, it’s likely the simultaneous consumption of delicious, high-carb side dishes, rather than the turkey that’s causing our drowsiness.
Wishing you all a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!