You’ve probably heard that eating turkey puts you to sleep because it contains L-Tryptophan, a chemical that makes you sleepy if you get too much of it. But is that true? Why do you really fall asleep after Thanksgiving dinner?
The Truth about Tryptophan
L-Tryptophan is a type of amino acid found in many different foods, particularly in meat, dairy, and eggs. Amino acids are a basic biological building block that your body puts together in various ways to do all sorts of tasks, like creating new cells or recovering from wounds.
Tryptophan, specifically, is a component in the B-vitamin Niacin, which helps your body digest food, maintain healthy skin, and keep its nervous system in tip-top shape.
Niacin also helps the body produce Serotonin– the chemical in your brain that helps produce and regulate feelings of well-being, comfort, and happiness.
When you feel at ease, comfortable and happy, it’s much easier to fall asleep. This process seems pretty simple, right? You eat the L-Tryptophan, which makes Niacin, which makes Serotonin, which makes you sleep – easy as A, B, C, Zzzz.
This explanation doesn’t actually hold water, though. While yes, L-Tryptophan can make you sleepy in the long run, there are a few reasons why eating turkey isn’t the root cause of falling asleep.
First thing’s first, despite all the hype, turkey isn’t an exceptionally potent source of the chemical – it actually has the same amount of L-Tryptophan as chicken. If L-Tryptophan were the only culprit, we’d also get sleepier every time we eat a serving of wings.
Pork chops, cheddar cheese and sunflower seeds each offer more L-Tryptophan by weight than turkey, and few people tend to complain about dozing off after eating these.
Second, turning turkey into the serotonin that soothes you to sleep is a four-step process, which means it takes a while. The serotonin will only reach your brain after your body has a few hours to digest, and only a portion of the niacin produced by the L-Tryptophan becomes serotonin, since it has so many other jobs to do in the body.
The Real Reason
The real reason you end up dozing off for a thanksgiving nap, dinner is actually the sheer amount of food you eat, not just turkey. We don’t typically think about it, but the process of eating food actually burns calories before it adds the energy from your food back into your body.
The real reason you end up dozing off after thanksgiving dinner is actually the sheer amount of food you eat, not just turkey.
Cracking this mystery is best done step-by-step. First you have to chew the food, which uses the muscles in your mouth. Once you swallow your food, your body has to spin up its internal assembly lines to generate digestion enzymes and stomach acid in order to break the food down.
Your body then needs to process the nutrients that come in and shuttle them around your body via your bloodstream. Your stomach, throat and intestines have to use peristalsis (the unconscious muscle movements that push food through your digestive tract) to mix in the digestion chemicals and stomach acid, push everything along, and escort it all to its final destination.
All of these processes take energy to complete, so your body burns calories – it turns out that eating is actually a workout! This is actually why diet experts sometimes say that celery has ‘negative calories’ – it often takes more energy for your body to process than it offers.
When we tuck in for a thanksgiving feast, people tend to eat more than their bodies are typically used to at a faster pace. Think of it as having your digestive system go from a carefree stroll straight into an uphill sprint.
This quick workout makes you tired, and your body urges your brain to go to sleep so it can reroute more power to digestion. While you doze off on the couch and take a Thanksgiving Nap, your digestive system has the time to organize and process all the food you ate, which lets you start gaining energy again.
The Perfect Storm
In addition to all of the calories your body burns while it’s trying to process your meal, a Thanksgiving celebration taps into our ancient instincts, and naturally puts us at ease.
You’ve got the day off of work, and you often get to spend it surrounded by your family. Humans are social creatures, and we rarely feel more at ease than when we’re surrounded by members of our own family.
This is a holdover from our earliest ancestors. Back when early humans were scavenging for scraps, the risk of predators generated our earliest fear instincts, as well as our social instincts. When our ancestors were surrounded by their community, they were much less likely to be caught unaware by a predator.
A family of early hominids was much better at avoiding threats than an individual. This means that we subconsciously let ourselves relax a little more when we’re around our family. Add to all of that a drink or two and a few hours of wrangling any kids in your family, and you’ve got a recipe for a nice after-dinner nap.
From all of us here at Quotacy, have a happy thanksgiving – and enjoy spending this time with the people you care about and a good Thanksgiving Nap.
Photo Credit to Rafal Jedrzejek
About the writer
Eric started in Quotacy's sales department, but moved to marketing after helping hundreds of people through their life insurance buying journey. Aside from writing about buying life insurance, he also edits Quotacy's monthly newsletter, runs our YouTube channel and produces Real Life, our podcast. Eric lives in Minneapolis, where his coworkers are trying to convince him to take his humor into the spotlight. Connect with him on LinkedIn.