Is Turkey Really to Blame for Thanksgiving Sleepiness?

Annually, families and friends gather around a table to eat too much food, avoid unwanted political conversations with a family member whom they’re not sure of how exactly they’re exactly related, and probably fall asleep on an aunt’s couch during the second football game.

One of the longstanding traditions is to blame the turkey, the beloved staple which sacrificed its own life for the sake of this holiday, for the inexplicable sleepiness we all have experienced on Thanksgiving. We’re sick of that delicious turkey being made into the sole scapegoat. We’re here to defend that turkey’s honor and to explain some of the science behind why you feel so tired at thanksgiving.

The Tryptophan Argument

People blame the tryptophan, the amino acid that serves as a precursor to the sedative serotonin, found in turkey for their thanksgiving slumber. There is tryptophan in turkey, it’s true, but there also is tryptophan in any high-protein food! Protein-rich foods like cheese, nuts, eggs, and even tofu all contain much higher levels of tryptophan than turkey does!

But here’s the bigger issue with this argument: tryptophan in itself doesn’t actually make you tired! Tryptophan needs to be converted to serotonin to create this drowsy feeling. Foods that contain tryptophan also contain a large number of other amino acids that block the brain’s receptors from absorbing the tryptophan, thus preventing the brain from creating serotonin and causing drowsiness. So if turkey by itself is not to blame for this phenomenon, what is?

If Not Turkey, Then What?

Like we said, turkey contains tryptophan but alongside the other amino acids that prevent the brain receptors from producing serotonin. Now, what happens if these amino acids get distracted with another task? Say, for example, breaking down mass amounts of carbs.

Envision your thanksgiving plate. Of course, you’ll find turkey but you’ll also find a plethora of potatoes, stuffing, bread, pies, desserts, etc. With this rush of carbs into your body, alongside the tryptophan-producing turkey, now the amino acids that once blocked the neuroreceptors from the tryptophan are busy breaking down the carbs into sugars. This allows the tryptophan to settle into the brain’s receptors to begin the serotonin production just around the same time you settle into that comfy couch. Although the turkey does provide the tryptophan, it’s technically the carbs that are to blame!

On top of this serotonin production, an additional touch of the ol’ thanksgiving gluttony can be blamed. Courtesy of our “parasympathetic nervous system”, which begins a queue of the processes deemed necessary within the body. The digestive system must go into a hyperdrive of sorts to keep up with the mass amounts of food you just consumed.

So if you begin dozing off at the dinner table, do so unashamedly! It’s only natural to feel this way at thanksgiving and now you know the truth behind why. Our advice to you is this: share this information at your thanksgiving meal, defend the turkey’s honor, impress your relatives, and while basking the glory of your knowledge, loosen your belt a notch and allow yourself to drift peacefully off to sleep.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!