The Reason Why Your Thanksgiving Meal Makes You Tired Might Surprise You

You can’t blame eating turkey.

By Nicole Gleichmann

There are some things that we take as fact because our family taught them to us, only to realize later that they weren’t quite accurate. This includes things like Santa being our Christmas gift-giver, the tooth fairy trading used teeth for money, or turkey causing your Thanksgiving drowsiness.

Yes, you read that correctly. Turkey is not to blame for your post-Thanksgiving-feast fatigue. Or at least, not fully.

The Real Culprit Is…

Thanksgiving meal

Well, there is more than one culprit. But the primary one is carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates come in the form of savory foods like sweet potatoes and bread as well as from sweets like pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. When we eat carbs, particularly with any protein-rich food (think meats like turkey or ham), something interesting happens to our bodies.

Proteins are made up of a string of molecules known as amino acids. When you eat turkey or any other food containing protein, the level and diversity of amino acids in your bloodstream increases. One of these amino acids is tryptophan, the amino acid that many blame for our need to nap after Thanksgiving dinner.

With tryptophan supplements sometimes used to help people sleep, it is no wonder that turkey, which is a rich source of tryptophan, is blamed for our fatigue.

But the key here is this: tryptophan supplements work best on an empty stomach. They are unlikely to induce slumber if you’ve recently eaten a meal.

The other amino acids found in turkey balance tryptophan’s sleep-inducing effects. However, if you have eaten carbs too, the ratio of tryptophan to other amino acids in your bloodstream rapidly increases.

Why does this happen?

When you eat carbs, your pancreas releases insulin into your bloodstream. The insulin then shuttles carbs and certain amino acids out of your bloodstream and into your cells for storage. However, insulin doesn’t have much of an impact on tryptophan.

This leaves you with higher levels of tryptophan in your bloodstream, which can make you feel sleepy.

It is important to note, however, that the same would happen if you subbed turkey for ham or steak. The amount of tryptophan in turkey is about the same in all meats. And without the carbs, eating meat is not going to make you unusually tired.

Other Sleep-Inducing Culprits

You may be wondering, if carbs plus protein equals tryptophan-induced slumber, why don’t I feel this same level of tired after every meal? It all comes down to the amount of food that you eat.

When we eat a large, rich meal, we almost always become sleepy. Many of our resources are shunted from our brains to our digestive tracts. The result is lethargy. Additionally, many families indulge in alcohol as part of a happy Thanksgiving ritual. Alcohol, too, can make you feel tired.

When you combine lots of carbs, turkey (or any other protein source), and alcohol, you will most definitely feel the need to escape to your room for a nap.

Closing Thoughts

When you find your energy dropping next Thanksgiving, don’t blame turkey. Instead, understand that your sleepiness is caused by a combination of the big meal, the carbs, and protein that it contains. This Thanksgiving, enjoy setting the record straight as you catch up with distant relatives.

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