It’s Not the Turkey Making you Sleepy

We hear it every year without fail, and I’m confident many will utter the words again this year: “All the tryptophan in the turkey is making me sleepy.” I would like to bring this falsehood to an end and will do my minuscule part by educating my readers—and those who stumble across me via the Googles—so that ignorance, old wives’ tales and myths may finally be silenced.

First of all, tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is present in every complete protein source we eat. So milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, fish, etc. all have tryptophan. The Thanksgiving Day scapegoat for sleepiness, the turkey, has the same quantity of tryptophan as all other poultry. Tryptophan can have a calming effect because it metabolizes into serotonin and the popular sleep aid melatonin, but you’d have to isolate it and take it on an empty stomach to get drowsy. So what’s making us sleepy after the Thanksgiving Day feast? It’s a combo platter of carbohydrates and the sheer quantity of food we’re eating.

A healthy dose of carbohydrates, like mashed potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, and other typical Thanksgiving fare causes the blood sugar to rise and the body to produce insulin. Insulin shuttles nutrients into muscles cells, including many of the amino acids from the protein you’ve eaten. Tryptophan doesn’t head into the muscle cells as readily, so there’s more of it in the bloodstream and your body synthesizes serotonin. Add some alcohol to this combination and you’ve given your central nervous system a sedative. Last but not least is eating a large volume of food. Digesting all that food takes a lot of energy, directing blood toward the gut to help break down all of these nutrient rich goodies. The result is a perfect storm of fatigue inducing factors that will turn you into a sleepy lump on the nearest couch.

If you doubt me, conduct the following experiment:

  • Eat your first Thanksgiving Day meal without any carbohydrates and no alcohol. So your plate will have lots of turkey meat and green vegetables, maybe some salad, but no bread, potatoes, corn, yams, stuffing, etc. Measure the degree of sleepiness as you digest.
  •  After at least two hours, eat another plate of food. This time, have less turkey and load up the plate with all the starchy carbohydrates foods you can handle. Really get it all in there including pie and throw in some wine or your booze of choice. Measure the degree of sleepiness as you digest.

Now that you are armed with the facts, you can help end the ignorance that is rampant in modern society. There is no excuse in today’s information drenched world to walk around uttering nonsense about our fine feathered friend the turkey, who gives his life to those of us on the higher end of the food chain. Happy Thanksgiving!

​¹Tryptophan and Carbohydrate Chemistry
² Tryptophan Wiki Page


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