Thanksgiving is a day of traditions: food, family, football, and falling asleep on the couch. If you’re like us, your mother is guaranteed to remark at least once during the meal that turkey makes people sleepy because it has a lot of tryptophan, but, as Lou Reed says, you can’t always trust your mother. So what’s the word on the bird?
The science reveals that turkey does not, in and of itself, cause sleepiness more than other foods. It does contain high amounts of tryptophan, an amino acid that is a building block of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin can then be converted “downstream” by the body into melatonin, your body’s natural sleep-inducing hormone. But the tryptophan alone isn’t enough to make you sleepy, as the digestion of the turkey protein leads to the release of multiple amino acids that are all competing to enter the brain at the same time. It turns out it’s the synergistic effect of the turkey and those mashed potatoes or stuffing on your plate that ultimately leads to the food coma. The carbohydrates in these sides cause a pulse of insulin to be released, which blocks all amino acids from crossing the blood-brain barrier – except tryptophan, resulting in your brain basting in melatonin! Because alcohol enhances sleepiness, you throw a couple glasses of wine or bottles of beer on top of that, and it’s no wonder you’ve never made it to the fourth quarter of the Lions’ game.
What can you do to maintain consciousness? Have 100-200 mg of caffeine (the equivalent of 1-2 cups of coffee) with your meal and/or get exposure to bright light for 20-30 minutes; this can be from a walk outside or with a therapeutic lamp.
From all of us at Singular Sleep, we hope you have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!
Joseph Krainin, M.D., FAASM is the founder of Singular Sleep, the world's first online sleep center. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and board-certified in both sleep medicine and neurology. He has been practicing medicine for over 10 years.
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