Turkey makes you sleepy is the refrain we’ve all heard, over and over. But does it really? How can one gorgeously burnished bird be what makes us all want to drift off as soon as the table is cleared? Like everything else, there’s more to it than that.
You know the story. Thanksgiving dinner is over. You’ve plowed your way through delicious piles of turkey, gravy, potatoes, Big Aunt Trudy’s sweet potato casserole, dressing, wine, and maybe a few green beans for virtue. Now you’re trying to drag your overstuffed self into the living room before your brother-in-law gets the biggest spot on the sectional. You settle in, just in time for that age-old discussion about how it’s the turkey’s fault for your yawning and somewhat stupified situation.
But just hang on, can we back up for a second? For years, we’ve been heaping blame on that faithful bird, spouting facts about tryptophan and serotonin while doing the annual sofa-sprawl and regretting our decision to not wear bigger, stretchier pants.
What does tryptophan do, really?
Turkey allegedly causes drowsiness because it’s packed with a nutrient called tryptophan. It’s such an oft-told tale that you most likely have taken it as fact much like Washinton having wooden teeth or bats being blind. And while it’s kind of true, it’s certainly not the whole truth.
Turkey does, in fact, contain tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, and essential amino acids aren’t manufactured by the body—we need them to grow and function but we rely on animal proteins (meat, eggs, milk) to get the majority of them. And turkey is a great place to get some.
But before you think it’s case closed, there’s still more science to unravel. Tryptophan helps the body to produce a B-vitamin called niacin, which then helps you to produce serotonin. You still with us? Good. Serotonin is a remarkable chemical. “When levels of serotonin are high, you’re in a better mood, sleep better, and have a higher pain tolerance,” says Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, author of numerous nutrition books, including her latest, Eat Your Way to Happiness.
In theory, it all works. But the thing is, for all those effects to take place, you need to get your tryptophan on an empty stomach. Yep. You read that right, darling. On a full stomach, tryptophan won’t set off enough of a chain reaction to get you to that cozy and blissful serotonin-soaked state. Not only that, in protein-rich foods, tryptophan is the least available essential amino acid. There’s just less of it compared to all those other amino acids that are trying to get to your brain, too. And tryptophan has to fight them all to get there.
So then, what causes post-Thanksgiving-dinner drowsiness?
If the turkey isn’t the culprit, what is? Blame it on the sheer amount of food that we pack away at a holiday dinner. If you take a look at what most of us are eating, you’ll notice that it’s probably a lot of carb-heavy foods. Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes (especially with marshmallows), bread, stuffing, corn, and topping it off with a sweet dessert…no one is going to feel spritely after all that. And the tastier it is, the more you’re going to eat.
Another factor is at play here, too. The inclusion of alcohol doesn’t help. Not only will cocktails make you sleepy (after the initial party buzz wears off), but depending on what you’re imbibing, it’s often full of those sleepy-time carbohydrates as well.
A big reason for after-dinner sleepiness is that having a full belly is diverting blood flow to your stomach from, well…everywhere else. Your body is working so hard to digest everything that you’ve eaten, you’re just not getting as much blood to your brain, making you feel like nodding off. And it’s worth noting here that the three biggest components of Thanksgiving dinner—carbs, protein, and fat—take the most work to digest. The fact that you’re probably eating more of them, and fewer veggies, in one sitting, means that your digestive system is going into overdrive.
How do I stay awake after Thanksgiving dinner?
If you’d prefer to end the evening without that feeling of absolute, jam-packed, pant-splitting satiety, then there are ways. And it’s not “just eat less, dearie.” Trust us, we love food just as much as you do and would never counsel anyone to deny themselves. But remember, there are always leftovers.
- Take a look at what you’re eating. We know that the best parts of the meal are the problem—carbs, fat, and protein. But if you try to balance it out with a little fiber from veggie sides, you should find that it helps. Fiber aids in digestion and fills you up more efficiently than all the heavy offerings.
- Don’t be tempted to eat sparingly (or not at all) during the day. You’re just going to make yourself hangry and then gorge at dinner. Eat nourishing foods, like veggies and lean protein throughout the day so that you don’t go over the top at dinner just because you’re famished.
- If you can manage it, go for a walk after dinner. It gets your blood moving and will perk you up. We know, we know—it sounds awful. But we promise that you’ll feel better.
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? A few more veggies, a few less mouthfuls of carbs, and maybe a little walk around the block afterward. Or, if you’re fine with that contented dozing on the sofa, have at it. We’re just here with the facts, folks.
Originally published November 21, 2021