Ah, Thanksgiving. The family, the football games, the stuffing, the pumpkin pie. And the nap-inducing turkey, right? Not quite. Many of us expect to get sleepy after all the holiday feasting, but it’s not the turkey that’s at fault. But turkey has that substance—tryptophan—that makes us sleepy, right?
Turkey does provide the essential amino acid L-tryptophan. Our bodies can’t make it, so we have to get tryptophan from food, or our health suffers. Tryptophan is used in the body for several different functions, including making niacin (a B vitamin), skin, serotonin (a brain chemical affecting mood) and melatonin (a chemical involved in regulating your sleep-wake cycle). And turkey is a great source of tryptophan. But it’s not the tryptophan that’s causing your Thanksgiving sleepiness.
Consider this. Other great sources of tryptophan include beef, chicken and other meats, along with cheese, seeds, nuts and soy. In fact, some of those foods are better sources of L-tryptophan than turkey. Now consider the last time you enjoyed a steak or piece of chicken. Did you need a nap? Do you always need a nap after eating nuts? And who thinks of cheese as the napping food? If the tryptophan in turkey causes sleepiness, then eating other sources of tryptophan would do the same. Not to mention that if something our bodies need to stay alive and be healthy made us tired every time we ate it, we might all be ending up in any manner of awkward predicaments.
Another point to consider: when you eat a meal, digestion requires a great deal of circulation. Now consider the grazing or multiple plates of food many of us enjoy at holiday get-togethers—and even expect and plan on for Thanksgiving Day. If digestion requires more blood to focus circulation around your intestines, just imagine the increased work load two or three heaping plates demands of our bodies! With more blood concentrated on absorbing so many nutrients from your gut on the holiday, of course your muscles will be content napping or lounging in front of football games on TV instead of heading outside to play with the family.
For those of us who stay up late the night before, cleaning the house before holiday guests come, then rise early to get the bird into the oven, lack of sleep may be to blame for the Thanksgiving Day tiredness. Our body clocks don’t take a holiday just because we are celebrating.
But wait, can tryptophan make you sleepy? It’s not a simple yes or no answer. There are health conditions for which L-tryptophan is prescribed, and at the doses given for such conditions, it’s possible for sleepiness to occur. But keep in mind it’s never wise to start taking a dietary supplement without seeking guidance from your doctor or primary health provider. Dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA as medications are, so taking a supplement without first consulting your doctor—and maybe even your pharmacist—is not advised.
Whatever your reason for feeling the need for a post-meal nap this Thanksgiving Day, go right ahead, and count the nap on your list of things to be thankful for.
Jackie Brown helps at LUH with Lunch & Learn and used to see patients. Joy Jordan works as the new dietician, also seeing patients.
Please talk to your provider for a referral to talk to Joy about your dietary needs and issues.