The Truth about Tryptophan

A mom prepares a healthy turkey recipe for Thanksgiving with her daughter.
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Its Thanksgiving, and you've just feasted on enough turkey, stuffing and green bean casserole to feed the pilgrims for a year. The second you put your feet up and flip on the game, the tryptophan kicks in lulling you to sleep with visions of candied yams dancing in your head.

Or so we've been told. The Thanksgiving nap is as much a tradition as the dinner, but what's really behind this tryptophan effect? Here are some fun facts to pass around the dinner table.

What is tryptophan?

L-tryptophan is an amino acid contained in turkey. But turkey isn't special. Tryptophan also appears in many other meats and foods, in roughly the same amount. In fact, cheddar cheese and tofu both contain higher levels of tryptophan than turkey, gram for gram.

Can tryptophan really make you tired?

Yes...but it's complicated. Tryptophan does cause the body to produce sleep-inducing serotonin and melatonin. However, turkey also contains lots of protein, which actually combats fatigue so this one is something of a draw.

So, what really makes us tired after Thanksgiving dinner?

That's complicated too, but there are at least two culprits of your post-Thanksgiving nap attack.

One: consuming a cornucopia of carbs. All that bread, potatoes and stuffing (or dressing) triggers a rush of insulin that clears the way for tryptophan to enter the brain. The tryptophan then hurries about in creating serotonin, which eventually becomes melatonin (we said it was complicated), leading to sleepiness.

The second culprit? The sheer volume of food on our plates. Thanksgiving is synonymous with overeating. And who can blame us? With the amazing spread in front of us, our tendency is to heap on much more than we normally eat in one sitting.

This huge amount of food can weigh down the digestive system, causing it to expend a lot of energy to digest it all.

OK, so how can I avoid feeling tired after Thanksgiving dinner?

Hoping to save your energy for pre-Black Friday shopping or quality time with the family? One idea is to focus on the main attraction: the turkey. Stick with protein-packed meat and avoiding the temptation of too many carb-heavy side dishes and desserts.

You could also try starting with smaller, easier-to-digest portions. Come back later for seconds, and you'll make the best dinner of the year last a little longer.

Its also a good idea to take a walk, play some touch football or engage in just about any physical activity shortly after eating.

But even if you are a victim of the Thanksgiving sleepiness, its probably not that big of a deal. Thanksgiving comes but once a year, right? The best course of action may be to just sit back, relax and enjoy it.

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