Thanksgiving is done and by the time you are reading this, you have already recovered from your turkey coma – as it is sometimes jokingly referred to as. So why does this happen? Many people blame it on tryptophan, an amino acid present in turkey. But the fact is, tryptophan is in many high protein foods as meat, chicken, fish and dairy. But you never really hear someone say they are so tired after a chicken dinner or after having a big breakfast with yogurt and granola. So why is this?
Let’s first look at tryptophan’s journey and its contribution to sleep. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin a neurotransmitter – a brain chemical that is the master of our moods! When serotonin levels are in check we are in a better mood, sleep better and we can even have a higher pain tolerance. Serotonin is used to make melatonin, a hormone that helps control wake/sleep cycles. But for all of these to work, tryptophan needs to first get through the blood-brain barrier. Since tryptophan is a bulky amino acid, it has a hard time getting through, because there is a fight amongst other amino acids, to also get through, that have a much easier time. Very little tryptophan can actually make it through, so it needs some help. Think of it as waiting in a long line at the grocery store, and you are at that spot when a new cashier opens up, and they pick you to go through first. Tryptophan in a sense, needs that same thing to happen – “a line opened up,” to have a chance to get through. This is done with the help of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates cause your body to release insulin, which removes all amino acids—except tryptophan from your blood, leaving tryptophan without competition, to enter the brain easily and boosting serotonin levels. As you can see there is quite a process that happens for tryptophan to make it the sole contributor for our sleepiness.
There are some factors besides the turkey that need to be taken into account.
- Turkey dinner is usually associated around other heavy dishes as mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, pie with whip cream and possibly alcohol. Many of these high carb foods surrounding the turkey, can cause a quick rise in blood sugar and in turn a crash not too long after, making you feel tired. If alcohol is involved, you feel even more tired from its sedating effect.
- Circulation goes a bit awry, as your blood is needed in the stomach for digestion, from all these heavy foods. This causes less blood available to the brain – making you feel tired and lethargic.
- Turkey dinners are usually celebrated in times of the year when there is less sun – fall and winter. Melatonin that was mentioned above is in charge of your sleep/wake cycle, so it is programmed to make you start feeling tired when it gets dark out.
So, as you can see from the above, it’s a combination of events, time of year, types of food eaten, amount of food eaten and digestion, that contribute to this “turkey coma”. So don’t worry about going “cold turkey,” you can eat it, just eat less of the rest.
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