Don't Blame the Turkey

It has happened to all of us... Dad doesn't know when to stop carving turkey. Mom insists we eat more of her sweet potato casserole. Grandma guilts us into a second helping of pie. And inevitably, we find ourselves passed out on the sofa after Thanksgiving dinner.

Most people blame the turkey for the sleepiness. It's popular wisdom to blame the tryptophan (pronounced trip-TO-fan), an essential amino acid found in turkey.

But here's the thing... tryptophan doesn't make you sleepy.

As an amino acid, tryptophan is one of the essential building blocks for our bodies. We need to consume it to build chemical messengers in our brains (like serotonin, our natural mood booster).

And turkey isn't the only food that contains tryptophan. You find it in nuts, seeds, soybeans, cheeses, lamb, beef, chicken, fish, beans, and eggs. Pork has a higher concentration of it than turkey does – but nobody jokes about falling asleep after eating a ham sandwich.

The real culprit behind your post-dinner droopy lids? Overeating.

Overeating means higher blood-sugar levels, which raise insulin levels. Insulin helps break down blood sugar. But when your blood sugar spikes, you get a corresponding spike in insulin. And when insulin breaks down all that sugar at once, the side effect is sleepiness. It's the same reason you get sleepy after a meal heavy in pasta or other grains.

But insulin also works with the chemicals in your brain to make you feel better – meaning the more you eat, the happier you feel. Recent research has shown a direct link between increased levels of insulin and increased dopamine release. Dopamine is the other powerful "feel-good" chemical. It's associated with the pleasure and reward center of the brain.

Overeating releases other hormones too – including the "hunger hormone," ghrelin. When your blood sugar is low and you need energy, ghrelin triggers your brain to make you hungry, so you eat. When you lose weight or skip a meal, your ghrelin level rises.

But here's the complexity of the human brain – ghrelin is also intricately tied to your pleasure centers. Even after you're full, ghrelin still kicks in and tempts you to have just one more slice of pumpkin pie because of how good the last piece was and how good you felt eating it.

Here are some other positive compounds found in your turkey:

  • Phosphorus (helps your bones and kidneys)
  • Iron (fights anemia)
  • Zinc (boosts your immune system)
  • Potassium (helps kidney function)
  • Other B vitamins (also protect your brain and heart)

Just don't stuff yourself. Try to overpower your ghrelin by following one of our favorite secrets... Eat slowly.

Many studies have shown that eating slower – and drinking water between bites – reduces the amount of food you eat. The changes to our hormones are complex and still being studied. But the prevailing theory is that eating slower allows your hormones enough time to complete the long process of signaling your brain to stop eating.

One paper, published in 2011 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, saw bigger drops in post-meal ghrelin levels in people who ate slowly (measured by people chewing each bite 40 times instead of 15 times).

If you can't help yourself or still succumb to those extra helpings, make sure to get up and get active after dinner. I love to take my family for an evening walk around the neighborhood after a big meal.

So enjoy your meal this Thanksgiving. Take your time, talk with your family, and let the meal last awhile. Your body will thank you.

What We're Reading

  • We’re already popping the cork on our favorite wines for Thanksgiving. Check out this handy pairing guide from Epicurious to pick out your perfect bottle.
  • Watch what happens in your body when you overeat, thanks to this video from the American Chemical Society.