A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Does eating turkey make you sleepy?

Serving turkey at thanksgiving dinner - Sleepy after turkey

Mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, homemade stuffing and a yummy helping of turkey followed by sleepiness. Does eating turkey make you sleepy?

It’s the turkey’s fault,” says Aunt Sally. “You’re tired because turkey makes you sleepy.”

Every year around Thanksgiving, you eat a large meal. Mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, homemade stuffing and a yummy helping of turkey covered in your favorite gravy. The drowsy feeling sets in. Naturally, you waddle your way to Grandma’s couch.

And, so the story goes, turkey has tryptophan that converts to serotonin that converts to melatonin, which regulates your sleep and hence, the sleepy feelings.

True, but not entirely.

“People aren’t a hundred percent accurate when they solely blame turkey for their sleepy feelings. There are a few additional factors that contribute to tiredness after Thanksgiving meals,” said Corrie Staff, a Marshfield Clinic Health System registered dietitian.

Tryptophan: You eat it more than you know

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, which means it comes from diet.

Protein-rich foods like cheese, eggs, chicken, nuts and turkey contain tryptophan.

Turkey and taters: Carb, tryptophan combo

“More so than tryptophan, sleepiness likely comes from the excessive amount of carbohydrates you’re consuming in one sitting,” Staff said.

Carbohydrates, like mashed potatoes or rolls, make tryptophan more available to the brain.

Studies show that eating a large amount of carbs stimulates uptake of competing amino acids allowing more tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier.

Alcohol: Wine, champagne or eggnog

Does your family consume alcohol during holidays and family gatherings? Many do. Alcohol has a sedative effect on the body. This can be a contributing factor to your sleepiness.

Vacation time: Relaxation sets in

“I think many of us lead busy work lives and are always on the go,” Staff said “When your body can finally relax and enjoy some time with your family, it’s easy to want that nap.”

Fasting: Not your greatest idea

“I hear of people fasting or eating a lot less leading up to a large meal like Thanksgiving dinner,” Staff said. “Though you think this may be helpful, it’s probably going to lead you to dish up a lot more carbs and turkey.”

The larger your servings, the less likely you’ll be able to avoid sleepiness.

“Studies, in general, associate large amounts of food with drowsiness,” Staff said.

Instead of fasting, follow a normal, well-rounded diet leading up to Thanksgiving and eat healthy snacks leading up to your large meal. You’ll feel less inclined to pile on helpings.

Avoid drowsiness: Follow the plate method

“As always, we recommend following the plate method. You can apply this to your Thanksgiving meal, too,” Staff said. Choose a:

  • 3-ounce portion of protein (like turkey) for women or 5-ounce portion of protein for men.
  • One-quarter-plate mashed potatoes or other starch.
  • Half-plate non-starchy vegetables like roasted asparagus or green beans.

You can find numerous recipes online on sites like the American Diabetes Association and Pinterest for “healthier” versions of traditional Thanksgiving dishes, Staff added.

“All of the factors we mention create the perfect storm for a good nap. Most of them are under your control,” she said.

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