Don’t Blame The Turkey: The Myth of Turkey and Tryptophan

by Shara E. on November 22, 2012

The Turkey Is Not the Problem
Source: Chip Bennet

If you’ve made it this far on this glorious Thanksgiving Day, presumably you have managed to not a)  spice up the stuffing with a touch of  listeria, salmonella or campylobacter, b)  blow your house up with poorly placed turkey fryer,  c) succumb to the latest craze of “Black Thursday” (because, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday aren’t enough) d) run screaming into the night, because your family history discussion lead to an explication on grandma’s bunion problem or e) give up hope, because the Lions probably lost. Again. (Hopefully I’m wrong about that last one) Having survived all of that,  right now you’ve probably found the most convenient horizontal surface to lie down on and digest that gut full of food (unless you used a smaller plate).  You’re stomach is probably overwhelmed with turkey, stuffing, pie, potatoes, and if you got *really* crazy, maybe even a vegetable or two.

I bet you’re feeling pretty tired right now, right?  I bet you’re blaming that turkey for how tired you are, everyone knows it’s the tryptophan in the turkey that makes you tired, right?


Is it nap time yet?
Source: ParanoidMonk

The theory goes that everyone gets tired on Thanksgiving because turkey meat has a large amount of tryptophan in it, which makes you sleepy. Tryptophan is a natural precursor (or building block) of serotonin which, aside from being involved in  mood, muscle movement, and maintaining body temperature, also makes you sleepy.  It is also a precursor of melatonin, which is involved in maintaining circadian sleep rhythms.

Yes, the theory is correct, but there are, unfortunately, a few pesky facts that get in the way of the myth. So when Dad says he can’t help do the dishes after dinner because the turkey made him too sleepy, here are a couple of arguments to try and get around that. Don’t worry, they’re short. I know you’re tired.

(Note: You may still end up doing the dishes alone anyways, no promises)

1. Turkey doesn’t actually contain all that much tryptophan

The argument usually goes that turkey is unique, in that it contains an unusually high amount of tryptophan , and that’s why it makes you more sleepy than other foods. Actually, the amount of tryptophan in turkey is similar to the amounts in chicken and pork, and less than you would find in egg whites, cheddar cheese or soybeans. You might actually get further with this excuse if you had a tofurkey this year instead, but in the meantime, maybe just sprinkle a lot of shredded cheese in the mashed potatoes to compensate.

Source: Wikipedia

2.  High fat, high protein meals make tryptophan less effective, not more 

In 1987, a study looking at meal composition and its influence on the effects of the ratio of tryptophan to other large amino acids in the blood found that meals higher in carbohydrates, not fat or protein, were more likely to induce feelings of sleepiness.  According to Anne Marle Helmenstine, this is because carbhoydrate-rich meals lead to higher levels of insulin, which causes the larger amino acids that compete with tryptophan to leave the blood stream, allowing for a higher concentration of the smaller amino acid, and more synthesis of serotonin.

Not to mention, tryptophan isn’t really an ideal sleep-aid anyway…..

In the 1970s and 80s, studies on the use of tryptophan as a potential sleep aid found that doses of 1 or more grams of tryptophan induced feelings of sleepiness among patients with insomnia. However, the results for patients who had normal sleep cycles were either mixed, or negative, in that these doses either made no difference or actually extended the amount of time it took to fall asleep, also known as sleep latency, rather than shorten it. That didn’t stop the development of a tryptophan-based dietary supplement, however in 1989 the FDA severely limited its use after the supplement was found to be associated with an outbreak of 1500 cases of an severe neurological disorder known as Eosinophila Myalgia Syndrome. Now before you panic, no, your turkey dinner, or daily turkey sandwich habit is not likely to make you sick, but you probably don’t want to be planning on tryptophan as your go-to sleep-aid any time soon.

So, when someone tries to tell you it’s the turkey that made them sleepy, please feel free to correct them. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t tired, but it probably isn’t the turkey that did it. So next time you’re looking for something to blame, you can always try blame the alcohol, the high fat meal….or maybe just the fact that you ate enough to feed a small horse.

Above all, however……



Source: Bennthewolfe



C. C. November 23, 2012 at 3:23 pm

…. You can and should blame the turkey, in addition to all the other stuff you just stuffed into your face. While the article is correct in that tryptophan is not the likely culprit for your sleepiness, the likely culprit is still the food itself.

As you filled your face with food and it makes its way to your fat stomach, more blood is required in your stomach to digest the delicious meal you just force fed yourself. Blood can be diverted from the brain, (cerebral blood flow remains constant, the variable is your blood pressure). You feel tired because your body requires more energy and oxygen which means more blood flow to your beer belly and away from your brain (blood flow remains constant though).

Hence you now have the “itis” and you can put off your chores until next month when you recover.

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