Updated Jan. 10, 2020
It’s Thanksgiving Day – the holiday reserved for gratitude, family, and an endless amount of side dishes to accompany the holiday turkey. A parade of food makes its way from the kitchen to the table to your plate. Your plate is piled high with all the trimmings: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes dripping with butter, green beans, and cranberry sauce. The wine bottle makes its way around the table, followed closely by the pumpkin and pecan pies.
After chatting with relatives and taking a second helping of potatoes, you find yourself fast asleep under a blanket on the nearest couch.
Have you ever wondered why Thanksgiving often ends in a nap? Many are divided as to why people often feel so sleepy after the big “turkey day” meal.
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What Is in Turkey That Makes You Sleepy?
The cause of this post-feast grogginess has long been debated around the dinner table. Many attribute it to tryptophan, an amino acid found in turkey, but despite the persistence of the myth, turkey isn’t to blame for the Thanksgiving nap
“Like many other foods, turkey does contain tryptophan, which is essential for the production of serotonin,” says Tessa Wellmon, RD, a registered dietician at UPMC Hamot. “Some serotonin is then converted to melatonin (a hormone that controls sleep cycles). Turkey, however does not have more tryptophan than other meats, dairy products, nut, or seeds that you would consume daily.”
Along with other meats, dairy products, nuts, and seeds, even vegetarian fare like tofu includes tryptophan. So, if tryptophan caused drowsiness, we would feel groggy after eating just about any protein (which is not the case).
So if tryptophan isn’t the culprit, why do we feel so sleepy after our Thanksgiving meal?
While tryptophan can help people relax, it isn’t the only amino acid in turkey. The other amino acids would outweigh tryptophan’s effect in reaching the brain. However, eating carbohydrates – like in stuffing or pie – causes your body to release insulin, which removes non-tryptophan amino acids from your blood.
It seems the enormous amount of food we often consume during the holidays is more to blame than turkey alone. So, if you want to stay awake on Thanksgiving Day, opt for smaller portions and skip the second helping of pie. You can always enjoy the leftovers the next day!
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Turkey Making You Sleepy Is a Myth
Turkey might get the blame for your post-meal nap on Thanksgiving, but there are other factors for your sleepiness.
The first is overeating in general. Eating high-calorie meals tends to lead to fatigue afterword, according to a 2018 study.
That’s especially the case when it comes to the type of food people generally consume at their Thanksgiving meals. Many of the most popular Thanksgiving dishes are carbohydrates that rank highly on the glycemic index, which ranks foods based on their ability to raise a person’s blood sugar. Foods high on the glycemic index scale will raise your blood sugar more quickly, which can cause the release of insulin and can trigger sleepiness. Those include potatoes, white bread, and high-glucose foods such as pie.
Drinking alcohol can help make you tired as well.
And then there’s the exhaustion of the day in general. Waking up early to begin meal preparation, and the work that goes into it, can cause fatigue.
How to Avoid That Sleepy Feeling
If you want to avoid the dreaded Thanksgiving food coma, there are steps you can take:
- Don’t skip other meals: Avoiding eating earlier in the day can make it more likely that you’ll overeat when the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and more are in front of you.
- Pay attention to your carbs: Carbohydrates release insulin into your blood, which enhances the effect of tryptophan. Limiting them during your Thanksgiving meal can help you stay awake.
- Eat slowly: It’s easier to overeat when you eat quickly because you may not realize you’re full until it’s too late. Taking your time during Thanksgiving dinner may help you avoid overeating.
- Eat smaller portions: This also helps you avoid overeating. Try a smaller helping of stuffing to avoid getting stuffed.
- Don’t forget your vegetables: Vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yams, corn, lima beans, carrots, and peas cause a slower rise in insulin levels than many of the carbs you eat on Thanksgiving.
- Cut back on dessert: Sugary, high-carb desserts like pumpkin pie can raise the likelihood of that tired feeling.
- Avoid too much alcohol: Consuming alcoholic beverages can make you tired, especially in the short term after drinking them.
- Take a walk: Going for a walk around the neighborhood after dinner can help with your digestion.
Nutrition is vital for maintaining your overall health. UPMC Nutrition Services offers comprehensive diet and nutrition counseling on a variety of topics, including eating disorders, weight management, and heart disease. Our team provides medical nutrition therapy for chronic conditions such as celiac disease, cancer, and diabetes. UPMC’s network of registered dietitians is available to help guide all patients towards a healthier life.