It’s Thanksgiving – you’ve just gone back to the table for thirds, your family is all around you, all the stress of planning for the holiday has finally paid off… and you start to feel a little drowsy.
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 an amino acid – a basic biological building block that your body needs in order to create Niacin, which is a type of B vitamin that helps your body digest food, maintain your skin, and keep your 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. L-Tryptophan is found in a variety of foods, particularly in meat, dairy, and eggs.
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 sleepy – 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, 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, it takes a while for your body to turn Turkey into serotonin. The four-step process from Typtophan to Sleepiness means that 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 after thanksgiving 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 uses up energy before it adds it to your body.
Think about it – first you have to chew the food. Then, your body has to generate saliva, digestion enzymes, and stomach acid in order to break the food down. Your body 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 bring everything 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 takes more energy for your body to process than it offers. When Thanksgiving rolls around, people tend to eat faster than their bodies can process the food and turn it into energy, so they actually burn calories during the meal, which makes them feel tired. While you doze off, your digestive system has the time to catch back up to the food you ate and 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, the nature of a Thanksgiving celebration naturally puts people 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. If you were surrounded by your family, you were much less likely to be caught unaware by a predator. A family of early hominids was much better at fighting off any 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.
Photo Credit to Andrew Roberts