Thanksgiving Science: The Tryptophan Myth

Thanksgiving: The Tryptophan Myth

As Thanksgiving approaches, so does the traditional Thanksgiving feast that tends to put many into a food-induced coma. Conventional wisdom blames the post-feast need to nap on tryptophan, the amino acid abundant in turkey. When a person consumes foods rich in tryptophan and the digestion process kicks in, blood flow to the brain triggers a neurochemical conversion that transforms tryptophan into serotonin and melatonin, compounds that regulate our energy and levels and sleep cycles. But is the sleepiness truly caused by too much turkey?

Understanding Tryptophan

Based on the above information, it’s easy to make a connection between a heaping plate of turkey and post-meal sleepiness. However, although turkey may stand apart as the best-known source of tryptophan, a host of other foods boast high levels of the amino acid as well. For example, a single serving of chicken provides the body with 350 to 390 milligrams of tryptophan, equal to the amount found in a similar sized portion of Thanksgiving’s traditional culinary centerpiece. Aside from poultry, seafood favorites like shrimp, tuna, halibut, salmon, and scallops pack a whopping 250 to 330 milligrams of tryptophan per four-ounce piece, while some dairy products, nuts, seeds, and legumes also offer healthy doses of the amino acid. If turkey really is to blame for yawns and drooping eyelids following Thanksgiving dinner, eating any of the foods listed above would have the same effect.

Debunking the Tryptophan Myth

Thanksgiving mealRather than placing the blame squarely on tryptophan, researchers point to overeating, alcohol, and physical exhaustion as the real culprits behind the Thanksgiving Day nap phenomenon. Ingesting a large meal heavy in protein and starch forces your digestive system to work overtime. In order for the gastrointestinal tract to function properly, the body redirects blood supply away from the brain to the stomach, a method of physiological compensation that amplifies fatigue. If you choose to enjoy an alcoholic beverage with dinner, count on feeling the effects later, because beer, wine, and liquor all qualify as considerably strong sedatives. Lastly, the whirlwind of activity that precedes a Thanksgiving gathering certainly drains energy, and when the football game has ended, a nap often holds greater appeal than confronting a sink full of dirty dishes!

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