January 18th 2020

Thanksgiving Makes You Sleepy. . . But Don’t Blame the Turkey


Everybody’s an expert. Especially at Thanksgiving. Here’s why the Cowboys will absolutely win, and Alabama will choke, and who Uncle Larry lost that bet to in 1984. But while the debates and family feuds are safe from being settled, everyone nods in unison about that “turkey sleep thing”. Oh, if only someone would start a fight about that.

“That” is the idea that eating turkey causes you to feel sleepy because it contains tryptophan. That’s an amino acid that causes the body to create serotonin, which can promote sleep. Others say tryptophan is a precursor for melatonin, another sleep aid. Here’s what’s actually true: turkey does contain tryptophan. Also true — here’s what has even more tryptophan than turkey: eggs, spinach, cheddar, halibut, lobster, pork, salmon, soy sauce, and about 20 other things. Based on that logic, we ought to all being struggling to stay upright most days. And the turkey “truth” gets a lot more wobbly-gobbly from there, because the tryptophan doesn’t even convert to serotonin, experts say.

So why does turkey get served a second time at Thanksgiving as a big helping of scapegoat?

Turkey at Thanksgiving makes you sleepy the same way that salad at Thanksgiving makes you sleepy – with a whole lot of help from the pumpkin pie, cornbread dressing, dinner rolls, imported wine, domestic beer, macaroni & cheese and marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes you ate that day. Carbohydrates convert to serotonin, making you feel happy, and sleepy. Alcohol has a sleep-inducing effect too. Also, a high consumption of fat can stretch the small intestine, which in turn sends signals to your body to rest. And yes, tryptophan in the turkey in conjunction with the carbs can heighten the effect. But, still — that lettuce also never hurt anyone until you poured ranch dressing all over it.

You add that to a day of sitting around watching football and going back for second helpings and, yes, you are bound to get tired. If you want to stay alert, eat less, watch the carbs, go easy on the alcohol, and take a break at halftime to use your legs. Some reports say we eat as many as 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving (other reports are more conservative, but in any event, no one is winning any Paleo awards on that day).

But no matter what, you did a lot more damage to that turkey than it did to you. So go ahead and sleep, but leave that turkey in peace.