It's common to take a nap after the huge Thanksgiving feast and blame your drowsiness on the natural sleeping potion chemical tryptophan, found in turkey meat. But does the myth stand up to the actual science?
Turns out, it is only marginally true. What makes you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner is any combination of booze, bad conversation and a carbohydrate-heavy meal, but not just the turkey itself.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that the body uses to build certain proteins and it can, although somewhat indirectly, induce sleep. The body uses tryptophan in a multi-step process to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps regulate sleep.
It's true that turkey contains tryptophan, but it's not as loaded with the stuff as you might think: all meat contains comparable levels of the amino acid, so it shouldn't make you any sleepier than, say, bacon. In fact, cheddar cheese, gram for gram, has more. Cheddar isn't the most exciting cheese in the fridge, but no one connects it with sleep. Turkey gets singled out for no other reason than being eaten during the biggest meal of the year.
In essence, any big meal with any food containing tryptophan can cause sleepiness. The real culprits are all those carbohydrates from potatoes, stuffing, vegetables, bread and pie. The massive intake of carb-heavy calories causes the release of insulin, which triggers muscles to suck up most of the amino acids from the blood except for tryptophan.
With all other amino acids swept out of the bloodstream, tryptophan has no trouble making its way to the brain and influencing the production of serotonin, the real sleep-inducer. Whether its from turkey, ham or any meat or cheese for that matter, a cocktail of tryptophan and carbohydrates are the real reason behind the post-dinner zzzzzzzz's.
- The Surprising Connection Between Turkeys and T. Rex
- Top 10 Bad Things That Are Good For You
- Five Fascinating Turkey Truths
Got a question? Email it to Life's Little Mysteries and we'll find an expert who can crack it.
Follow Remy Melina on Twitter @RemyMelina