Does Turkey Make You Sleepy?

Your meal played a part, but you can pardon the turkey. (Getty Images)

Your meal played a part, but you can pardon the turkey. (Getty Images)

By Mary Leigh Meyer, Texas A&M University Health Science Center

Thanksgiving is a time for family and friends to gather around the table and give thanks for the good in their lives—which often includes a delicious, large meal with turkey, stuffing and an assortment of sweet and savory dishes. After the traditional meal comes the other Thanksgiving tradition: the post-meal nap. No matter how hard you try to fight it, your eyes get heavy and you find a comfy spot on the couch, which usually results in a nap.

We’ve often wondered whether it was the turkey that led to the catnap. Matt Hoffman, DNP, clinical assistant professor with the Texas A&M College of Nursingexplains the myth and other helpful Thanksgiving tips.

Turkey and L-tryptophan

L-tryptophan is an amino acid, a protein building block, and it is a precursor to the sleep hormone melatonin. Before the time of alarm clocks, our ancestors’ melatonin was controlled by the light outside. When the sun went down, melatonin went up, and that was the sign that the body needed a good night of sleep.

Even though turkey has L-tryptophan, it’s likely not the main reason you’re tired after your meal, because the chemical is found in plenty of other foods like cheese, beans and eggs. The real culprit is usually the overwhelming carbohydrate intake.

The post-carb lulls

“We normally eat too many carbohydrates during our Thanksgiving meals,” Hoffman said. “Having too many carbohydrates is a reason why you’re feeling sleepy and need a nap.”

According to the National Sleep Foundation, carbohydrate-heavy meals make L-tryptophan more available to the brain, which leads to the process of creating melatonin and making us drowsy.

“If you look at the normal Thanksgiving meal, there are a lot of different types of carbohydrates there,” Hoffman said. “Foods like mashed potatoes, stuffing, dressing, cranberry sauce and desserts all have high amounts of carbohydrates.”

Hoffman also advised finding the “hidden” carbohydrates. “Carbohydrates aren’t just in bread or wheat sources,” Hoffman said. “Other foods, like green bean casseroles and sweet potatoes with marshmallows, are mixing healthy carbohydrates with the bad ones.”

Many people may not grill on Thanksgiving, but Hoffman recommended grilling or sautéing vegetables so that they’re not loaded with added sugar in a casserole and can be a healthy addition to a plate.

The social aspect

The holidays are rare time when errands and responsibilities are put on hold for the day, and it’s become normal (and required) to just enjoy each other’s company without any other burdens, and that is a relaxing feeling (maybe a bit too relaxing). The “eat and nap” routine has almost become as traditional as pumpkin pie.

“We’ve kind of given ourselves a pass to eat a lot, maybe a bit too much, then to take a nap,” Hoffman said. “If it’s what you did last year and enjoyed it, then you’ll do it again next year and the following year because it’s what everyone else is doing.”

Also, it can be common to drink wine or other alcoholic beverages during Thanksgiving meals. Although it’s nice to enjoy wine in moderation, wine is made from grapes, which is a fruit, and fruits are carbohydrates.

“Alcohol also makes you dehydrated, so it’s important to stay hydrated throughout the day,” Hoffman said. “Your body needs to function at its best and digest the meals you’ve had throughout the day.”

A healthier approach to Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving can be a long day, and if you’re not careful, you can end up just overeating, napping then overeating again. The best way to plan your holiday is to add a couple of small changes.

“A healthier approach is to have smaller portions and smaller meals so that you’re not depriving yourself of foods that you like,” Hoffman said. “This will help control the carbohydrate load while still allowing everyone to eat the foods they enjoy.”

Also, planning an activity that gets you moving can help break the food-sleep-food cycle. Exercising on Thanksgiving may seem like a waste of a good workout, but it can help create a better mindset going into the Thanksgiving buffet.

“If you’re in the mindset of ‘I’m going to work out today’ or ‘I will take my dog for a long walk this morning,’ then you may put yourself in a healthier mindset that will avoid overeating,” Hoffman said. “You can also plan group activities that get you out and moving; that can also keep you active and away from all the food so that you’re not mindlessly eating.”


This article by Mary Leigh Meyer originally appeared in Vital Record.


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