Food News

Does Turkey Actually Make You Sleepy?

November 20, 2017

By now we’re probably all familiar with the idea that turkey makes you tired. I’ve been known to blame many a post-Thanksgiving nap on “all that tryptophan,” an amino acid found in turkey that is said to cause an intense desire for slumber. It’s a common experience: gorging on plates full of Thanksgiving fare, only to retreat to the sofa, satisfied but sleepy, blinded by the desperate need for a nap.

But how much of this comfortable myth is couched in reality? To what extent is turkey really to blame for these post-feast fits of fatigue? I set out to do some (light) research.

It turns out the answer is more accessible than I previously thought; this is no new query. A bevy of other outlets have taken the chance to test this theory. Scientists have spoken and the internet has reported and the conclusive, almost across-the-board answer is that turkey, what with its trace elements of tryptophan, is actually not to blame for any type of dinner dreariness. And here’s why:

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Let's start at the beginning. Tryptophan is an amino acid that, once consumed, is a chemical antecedent to the body’s natural production of melatonin and serotonin, two compounds that regulate our sleep cycles. Turkey does in fact contain tryptophan—there’s no denying that. But so do a host of other meats like chicken and beef. Furthermore, nuts and cheeses actually contain even higher levels of the compound. Not to mention that tryptophan is only one of the twenty amino acids found in the bird.

Instead, we can attribute our fatigue to the carbohydrates that populate our Turkey Day buffets. Carbs release insulin which allows for tryptophan to enter our brains at a higher rate. So it’s actually this intense overload of potatoes and stuffing (combined with the tryptophan in many of the foods we eat) that has our eyes feeling heavy. And those glasses of red wine definitely don’t help, either.

So there you have it: tryptophan is part of the equation, but turkey is not entirely at fault. Any big meal chock-full of those carbs is bound to make us feel tired. So as you drift off to sleep with a tummy full of turkey, blame some of those other classic Thanksgiving dishes instead.

How do you handle the Thanksgiving sleeps? Let us know in the comments.

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.