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Debunking the Tryptophan-Turkey Myth: Does Eating Turkey Make You Sleepy?

Updated on April 30, 2017

Tryptophan is one of the 8 essential amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. It is called “essential amino acid” because it is not produced in the body and therefore must be obtained through the food we eat.

The amino acid tryptophan can be found in abundance in your favorite chocolate candies and chocolate drinks, in your sunny side up or scrambled eggs for breakfast, milk, yoghurt, your favorite pork, beef, fish, and poultry dishes, certain types of cheeses, oats, sunflower seeds, dried dates, spirulina, chickpeas, sesame seeds, peanuts and pumpkin seeds.

In addition to being an important building block of proteins, tryptophan is also a key component in the production of three important chemicals in the body: serotonin, niacin and auxin.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter produced through the action of the enzyme tryptophan hydroxylase, and can be further converted into melatonin through the action of the enzyme N-acetyltransferase.

Moderate amounts of serotonin in the brain is known to have a calming effect on a person while melatonin, on the other hand, which is produced in abundance in the absence of sunlight, makes a person sleepy.

Niacin is an organic compound also known as vitamin B3 and nicotinic acid. It has the ability to reduce low density lipoproteins or “bad cholesterol”, thus it can treat atherosclerosis when taken in large doses.

Auxin is a substance used in regulating plant growth. It plays a significant role in a plant’s development and various processes in a plant’s life cycle.

But what about this belief that eating too much turkey on Thanksgiving is the reason why you feel sleepy right after dinner? A lot has been said and written about this Thanksgiving phenomenon making people believe that the innocent turkey served on the dinner table is the culprit behind that holiday after-dinner sleepiness.

However, experts explain that the amount of tryptophan in the turkey served at the Thanksgiving dinner table cannot further produce serotonin because tryptophan can only work efficiently in an empty stomach. Since there is too much food at dinner time, only part of the tryptophan content in the turkey is able to reach the brain which is not enough to make you go to sleep.

And besides, turkey does not really contain large amounts of tryptophan just like its cousins chicken and beef. High protein foods like pork and cheese contain more tryptophan per gram than turkey does.

The most likely reason for that drowsy feeling after Thanksgiving dinner is a combination of chemical reactions resulting from the type and amount of food and drinks served at the dinner table which is often heavy in fats and carbohydrates such as potatoes, bread, pasta and desserts.

The British Medical Journal explains that one physiological explanation for the drowsy feeling after eating turkey on Thanksgiving is that any meal that contains large amounts of filling and solid food such as turkey, assorted turkey stuffing, huge sausages and a variety of veggies can make you sleepy because the flow of oxygen and blood to the brain is decreased.

The brandy butter and the pudding served for dessert plus the wine served at the dinner table all contributed to the feeling of drowsiness and slugginess after having that lavish Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

The average meal served on Thanksgiving dinner usually contains about 3,000 calories and more than 200 grams fat which could be the reason for that lethargic and listless feeling after that hearty Thanksgiving dinner.

Latest update on tryptophan

The latest update on tryptophan published by the Mayo Clinic states that L-tryptophan is used to treat depression along with other types of medications for this purpose.

L-tryptophan is also used to treat bipolar disorder. It can be purchased in capsule and tablet form.

In Canada, tryptophan is used to treat bipolar disorder and depression along with other types of medications. It stabilizes mood and maintains the melatonin and serotonin balance in the brain.

Tryptophan is a naturally occurring substance found in milk and other protein-rich foods. It is sold as a dietary supplement in the US.

If you are taking medications that could affect your serotonin levels, you need to talk to your doctor before taking tryptophan otherwise, it could be fatal.

© 2011 Zee Mercado


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