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Tryping Hard on Turkey Day: The Truth About Tryptophan and Why You Feel Sleepy on Thanksgiving

The Sleep Club Editors

Thanksgiving is coming in the United States and with that football, the Macy’s Day Parade, family, friends… and food. Lots and LOTS OF FOOD. It is a time full of family — blood and chosen — sharing, honoring what you are grateful for and eating. A lot of eating.

The busty turkey — which, contrary to popular belief, was NOT Benjamin Franklin’s pick as America’s national bird but the object of a joke he made about what a poor choice the bald eagle was — is the main event at pretty much every Thanksgiving dinner since time immemorial. Interestingly enough, my family wasn’t big on the whole turkey thing (bunch of nonconformists) so our meat was pretty much whatever struck our fancy that year, but I digress. In the majority of U.S. households, you gather around the table, someone carves the bird, you eat it and all the trimmings, then want to lay down for a long nap. Tryptophan is noted as the reason for this, because turkeys, yes, do have a fair amount of tryptophan in them, but… 

Is that really why you’re tired after eating Thanksgiving dinner?

Let’s see.


The truth (and sort of a myth) about turkey and sleep

Turkey contains the amino acid L-tryptophan. Truth. When you eat tryptophan, it travels through the bloodstream into your brain and is processed as serotonin. Now, for all our usual readers out there, you know that serotonin is one of the nearest and dearest to sleep. It calms us down and makes us feel nice and dozy. Ahhh… Therefore, turkey must be the thing that makes us tired, right?

Well, that’s the “sort of a myth” part.

Studies show that L-tryptophan only makes you tired right away if it’s ingested by itself, without any other amino acids, and on an empty stomach. Turkey, as you know, is high in protein. Protein, as you also probably know, is made up of several amino acids —20, to be exact — of which L-TRYPTOPHAN is ONE. That means, when you’re eating the bird, that building block is not running to the brain solo, hence, there’s not enough of that stuff to make you tired right away. After all, when you eat a turkey sandwich for lunch or have turkey in a salad, you don’t feel like curling up in a ball and copping a few zzz's right away, do you? Most likely, you don’t.

By the way, if you do? We suggest you contact a sleep doctor to find out what’s going on.

But back to turkey day and feeling all slumber-ready — why do you get sleepy after eating Thanksgiving dinner? It’s not just the turkey. Trust us.


Thanksgiving Day fatigue

While tryptophan certainly adds to the sleepiness you feel, it can’t take all the credit. It has a partner.


Our body has just taken in copious amounts of food that includes both a bunch of protein and a great deal of carbs. L-tryptophan is in protein rich foods and definitely doesn’t do the job of kicking off enough serotonin production to make you want to grab a snooze with its fellow amino acids hanging around. And, just for the record? Turkey isn’t even in the top 10 foods with high tryptophan levels. Just sayin’.

What does help your body digest enough of that magical building block is carbohydrates. Putting the two together raises your serotonin and when you eat a very large meal, it simply ups the ante. Also, digesting everything you just enjoyed takes a lot of physical energy. 

The number of factors behind why you get tired after a Thanksgiving meal are huge. 

  1. Lots of protein mixed with carbohydrates means better tryptophan absorption, thereby, upping your serotonin levels — lots of carbs makes your pancreas produce more insulin to break down the sugars and that causes all large amino acids in the bloodstream to lower EXCEPT L-TRYPTOPHAN. Carbs are their partner for getting it into your body at a higher level than normal.
  2. Blood rushes from your brain to your stomach to digest all that you’ve just eaten, so your body’s focus is to get your food handled and your insulin level regulated not to keep you awake and alert — ah, the mighty brain. 
  3. You just spent the last few days dealing with family, cooking, cleaning, engaging, putting aside differences, running out to get last minute condiments or ice or whatever it is you need, racing around, only to sit down to a GIANT MEAL featuring a sleepy tag-team. You’re already primed for snoozing. The food just helps.

Slow and steady keeps you awake

In all honesty, protein rich foods can help you have more energy rather than put you to sleep. It’s all in how you combine those buggers with other ingredients. And if you want to be more with it on Thanksgiving Day, here are just a few tips —


Don’t load up your plate

Go small, stop when you’re full, and look forward to leftovers.


Eat small meals through the day

Any large meal on an empty stomach will wear you out. By NOT making the main event the first thing you eat, you’re helping your body regulate your food better, and digestion easier.


Drink lots of water

Hydrating is your friend. And it will actually make it so you don’t eat more than you can handle.


Move around

Take a walk with family, friends, or your pet bff, and get out of the house to indulge in a little fresh air. It will not only help your blood flow, but may destress you from all the prep and the craziness of the day.



If you do get sleepy after your meal, then just take a nap. You’ve earned it. It’s Thanksgiving, after all. Enjoy winding down and resting. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

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