It's an ailment that hits most of us on Thanksgiving Day...
Each year, we inevitably find ourselves passed out on the sofa after Thanksgiving dinner. Most folks blame the turkey for the sleepiness. It's popular wisdom to blame the tryptophan, 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.
You actually don't want to avoid your Thanksgiving turkey. Turkey contains many positive compounds, including...
- Phosphorus (helps your bones and kidneys)
- Iron (fights anemia)
- Zinc (boosts your immune system)
- Potassium (helps kidney function)
- Other B vitamins (protect your brain and heart)
But overeating is another story. Like I've said before, I don't worry about counting calories for rare special occasions like Thanksgiving. Still, let me explain the science of how you get trapped into eating more than you planned... and how you can keep from collapsing on the couch after your meal.
Overeating raises your blood-sugar levels. That makes your body produce more insulin, which helps break down blood sugar. 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. Dopamine is a 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. In normal conditions, ghrelin is an alert that you need to eat. But because it's also tied to your brain's pleasure centers, ghrelin kicks in to tempt you into eating one more slice of pumpkin pie... even after you're already full.
You'll likely enjoy Thanksgiving more if you can keep a lid on your consumption... and, in turn, your usual post-meal drowsiness. These three tips will help...
1. 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... before you've already gone too far.
One study, 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).
2. Eat a little less.
Good research shows eating less will help you live longer and with less discomfort when older. The Japanese philosophy about eating less is called "Hara Hachi Bu."
In Japan, the Okinawans practice it by literally eating until they are "only 80% full." I plan to keep my calorie intake down this year by remembering this practice. After all, Okinawans have a high rate of folks who live well into their 100s, and I'd like to do the same. And you don't have to wait decades for the benefits... If you eat less on Thanksgiving, you'll also feel less drowsy.
3. Get active after dinner.
Especially if you succumb to 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.
Walking after a meal can lower your blood sugar and help prevent diabetes, too. Exercise directly lowers your blood sugar by bypassing insulin... When you work your muscles, they contract and allow your muscle cells to absorb glucose without the help of insulin. Once they have the glucose, muscle cells break it down to use it for energy.
To get the most benefits, follow the 20-20 rule – wait for 20 minutes after eating and then walk for 20 minutes. You'll be surprised by how energized you feel.
So enjoy your meal this Thanksgiving. Take your time, talk with your family, and let the meal last awhile. Your body will thank you.
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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 21, 2023