Why eating turkey really makes you sleepy

Is everyone's favorite Thanksgiving centerpiece really to blame for the post-dinner doldrums?

Why eating turkey really makes you sleepy
(Photo from Flickr)
  • Americans kill around 45 million turkeys every year in preparation for the Thanksgiving meal, only to blame our favorite centerpiece for the following food comas.
  • Rumor has it our after-dinner sleepiness results from the tryptophan found in turkey.
  • However, it is the meal's overall nutritional imbalance, not just the tryptophan, that make us want to leave the dishes for tomorrow. Or maybe the next day.

The turkey is one of the closest living relatives to avian dinosaurs, but recent evolutionary turns has taken it from peak predator to meek entrée. Americans kill about 45 to 46 million turkeys in preparation for Thanksgiving, and to really rub it in, our nation's leader pardons one every year as a lark.

But ignominy doesn't stop there. Through selective breeding, we've dramatically increased the size of turkeys, particularly in the breast for more of that coveted white meat. This has led to all sorts of health issues, including skeletal problems, cardiac morbidity, and reduced immune response. Thanks to those robust breasts, domestic turkeys can't mate anymore and rely on us for artificial insemination.

If that wasn't bad enough, every year after we've feasted on millions of these birds, we then blame them for making us miserably tired. We've even developed a term for it: the turkey coma, the "inevitable and unavoidable nap that occurs about 45 minutes after gorging one's self on a Thanksgiving Day turkey," as one Urban Dictionary user defined it.

But are turkeys really to blame for the turkey coma? And if so, how do they manage this posthumous revenge?

Tryptophan-tasitc meal

Jerry and George use a turkey's tryptophan to make Celia fall asleep in the episode "The Merv Griffin Show."

Jerry and George use a turkey's tryptophan to make Celia fall asleep in the episode "The Merv Griffin Show."

(Photo from NBCUniversal)

As any Seinfeld fan can tell you, that stuff in turkey that makes you sleepy is tryptophan. Specifically, L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid that our livers synthesize into niacin. Niacin, in turn, helps create the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Our brains and bodies use serotonin for many functions. It plays a role in appetite, emotional stability, motor skills, and cognitive processes, but it's most famous for regulating our body's sleep-wake cycles. This common knowledge serves as the basis for the belief that turkey makes you sleepy.

Thing is, a lot of foods contain tryptophan. Nuts, soy, eggs, milk, salmon, chicken, spinach, yogurt, and chocolate are all dietary sources of tryptophan, with many of them containing more tryptophan than our favorite holiday fowl.

According to My Food Data, turkey has 404 milligrams of tryptophan per 100 gram serving. But in the same serving size, pumpkin and squash seeds have 576 milligrams, soybeans have 575, and reduced fat mozzarella has 571. None of these is associated with drowsiness, and nuts are a go-to for an afternoon pick-me-up snack.

Either turkey is being unfairly maligned or something else is weighing down our eyelids after a Thanksgiving meal.

Caloric cat nap

While Seinfeld may have exaggerated the effects of tryptophan, the show did get one thing right. If you want to put your girlfriend to sleep so you can play with her antique toy collection, a calorie-laden meal of turkey, heavy gravy, and a whole box of red wine will do the trick.

Americans consume a lot of calories during a Thanksgiving meal. This isn't news but the numbers, once laid bare, can still be guilt-inducing. The Calorie Control Council estimates that the average Thanksgiving meal weighs in at 3,150 calories, but it's worth noting that their estimate uses sweet tea as a beverage benchmark and not beer, wine, or cocktails.

Dietitian Tanya Zuckerbrot told Fox News that a turkey day dinner ranges between 3,000 and 4,500 calories. Like the Calorie Control Council, her estimate does not include alcoholic drinks, but she also skipped on appetizers.

Obviously, these numbers vary depending on the food available and serving sizes. But any estimate will have one thing in common: a single meal sporting well over the USDA recommended daily caloric intake for all demographics outside of Olympian athletes.

Putting the sleep turkey myth to rest

Two male turkeys named Peas and Carrots sent by the National Turkey Federation (NTF) to the White House are seen before the upcoming annual turkey-pardoning ceremony on November 19, 2018 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Chen Mengtong/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)

And this is why the term "food coma" is much more apt — or, if you want to get clinical, "postprandial somnolence."

"We've known for many years that meals with an imbalance of nutrients — that are rich in either fats or carbohydrates — are associated with feeling sleepy," writes Angus Steward, senior lecturer of nutrition and dietetics at Edith Cowan University. "But this is not the case when nutrients are balanced or the meal is rich in protein."

When we start our Thanksgiving meal, our stomachs begin producing a hormone called gastrin. Gastrin kickstarts the digestive process, which reroutes blood to our stomachs to carry away the newly formed nutrients.

Part of the drowsiness is due to the volume of food you consume. It simply takes longer to digest, requiring your body to take it easy while it diverts blood from other bodily functions. But as Steward explains, it isn't just volume at work here. It's also what we eat.

Thanksgiving meals are heavy in fats and carbohydrates. Carbs release glucose into the bloodstream quickly, causing a spike in insulin production. Insulin helps the body absorb the glucose, but in doing so, it makes it easier for tryptophan to pass the blood-brain barrier. Once tryptophan is in the brain, it begins conversion to serotonin to tell your body it's time to sleep.

With your body and mind at rest, your body can get to work absorbing the massive meal.

That's the bad news if you still have a daunting pile of dishes to clean Thanksgiving evening. The good news, as the National Sleep Foundation points out, is that you can use your newfound understanding as a little bio-hack. Eating small bedtime snack that contains both carbs and tryptophan, such as peanut butter on toast, can help you ease into a restful night's sleep.

Ending the blame game

So, the myth is partially right; turkey does have a role to play. It and many other Thanksgiving favorites provide you with ample tryptophan. When combined with an overall high-calorie meal and enough stuffing to carb-load for a marathon, the result is a mid-afternoon snooze.

But the turkey is hardly the sole cause of anyone's sleepiness. If anything, we only have ourselves to blame and can stop blaming it for those decisions. And even if turkey did make us sleepy, let's face it: it has far more grievances against us than we do against it.

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Keep reading Show less

Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

Videos
  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

Personal Growth

Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.

Quantcast