Debbie J., MS, RD contributed this article –
Remember last year’s Thanksgiving? Overflowing portions of rich holiday dishes strewn across the table and a turkey so big that nothing else fit in the oven. Thanksgiving dinner always seems to be followed by a period of completely zoning out until you fall into a full-on food coma. If these are your memories of Thanksgivings past, you may be wondering what causes this so-called “food coma.”
A meal that consists of plenty of protein and ample carbohydrates is bound to send you into a deep slumber— such is the case with most Thanksgiving dinners. In addition to the protein and carbohydrates, the sheer volume of food that most people find themselves consuming on Thanksgiving also contributes to this grogginess. This is in part due to the fact that your digestion process takes a lot of energy. Now, if you also add in a bit of alcohol consumption to the mix you will likely find yourself on the way to dreamland!
Turkey and tryptophan are not to blame. Well, not entirely anyway.
The amount of tryptophan in turkey is actually typical of most poultry. Turkey has many other amino acids that compete with tryptophan to get into the brain (across what’s called the blood-brain barrier). Post-meal drowsiness has more to do with what is consumed along with the turkey, particularly carbohydrates.
The lowdown on tryptophan…
Tryptophan is an amino acid that your body cannot make, thus it is essential that you get it from your food. It is present in most protein sources, but most notably in meats, dairy, pecans, almonds, walnuts, buckwheat, millet, quinoa and bananas. Alone, tryptophan is a natural relaxant and sleep aid because it’s used to make serotonin. Once tryptophan gains access to the brain it is converted to serotonin with the help of Vitamin B6.
The lowdown on serotonin…
Serotonin is a naturally occurring derivative of tryptophan found in your body cells, particularly of the blood, intestine and brain. Among other functions, it acts as a brain chemical messenger (neurotransmitter). When serotonin releases it can cause feelings of well-being and relaxation due to its metabolism into a sleep-promoting hormone called melatonin.
Carbohydrates + protein increase serotonin levels.
Thanksgiving foods such as potatoes, yams, rice, corn and pie actually help boost levels of serotonin, and therefore the sleep promoting hormone, melatonin.
Here’s how it works:
- Eating a meal rich in carbohydrates triggers the release of a hormone (insulin).
- This causes your muscles to take in certain amino acids, leaving tryptophan mostly in the blood.
- By sweeping competing amino acids out of the bloodstream, more tryptophan is available for your brain to produce melatonin, via serotonin.
- You become relaxed and tired, which causes you to fall asleep and miss the second half of the Thanksgiving Day football game.
Avoiding feast-induced drowsiness
In order to stay alert and energetic following a holiday meal you are going to have to revise what and how much you choose from the cornucopia of rich foods at your Thanksgiving table.
- Instead of consuming all of the side dishes, partner your turkey with brussels sprouts, green beans or a nice salad.
- Pick the one carbohydrate source you love the most (stuffing for me!) and enjoy it.
- The most effective way to avoid post-meal drowsiness at Thanksgiving (or any meal for that matter) is to reduce not the protein eaten, but the accompanying carbohydrate-containing foods.
Happy Turkey Day Everyone!
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