What could be a more recognizable holiday meal in North America than a roast turkey with all the trimmings? At Colorado Recovery Infusion Center we love food, especially around the holidays, but we always look at meals for their nutrition and the biochemical properties they contain. Even during the holidays it’s important to remember that food can have an extremely profound effect on how we feel. After all, many of us are emotionally reactive and fall into patterns of behavior (both positive and negative) when we feel a certain way. Knowing which foods set off which emotional states is an important facet of getting to know oneself and learning take control of our emotional being.
When it comes to how we feel after eating grandma’s holiday roast turkey, the most common feeling is being tired. It’s common knowledge that this is due to a natural chemical in turkey called tryptophan, but the truth is a little more nuanced, and a lot more interesting. Using this iconic holiday meal as an example is a great way of illustrating just how much food affects our mood.
Now, a great deal of this has to do with context. Imagine yourself on Christmas evening. You’ve just eaten a mountain of food and are sitting in a comfortable chair in your family den. When our stomachs are very full, our bodies automatically shift their focus to help with digestion. Neurons in your brain that are very sensitive to glucose (a simple sugar found in many plants we eat) start making this change as soon as digestion begins. This is a function of what’s called the parasympathetic nervous system which governs a number of important bodily functions when we are at rest. Even if you hadn’t just eaten a bunch of tryptophan laden turkey, it would be very normal to feel sleepy due to this reaction.
Many people travel for the holidays and are therefore already susceptible to feeling tired. It’s easy to overlook this fact in the excitement of the holidays, but chances are your reserves are already running a little low if you had to fly or drive long distance to get home for the holidays. This is particularly true if you’ve traveled to a different time zone. If you ate your dinner late, as many do around the holidays, that can also add to your feeling tired after your turkey dinner.
Did you have a little pie or other dessert with your turkey dinner? The resulting sugar crash could easily make you feel a little beat, especially when considered along with the other factors we’ve discussed.
Finally, there is the Tryptophan itself. Tryptophan is one of 22 standard amino acids and is actually essential to a healthy diet. It may be surprising to learn that there is a similar amount of tryptophan in other meats as there is in turkey. There is also lots of it in bananas, chocolate, and many dairy products. It’s also found in a large number of plant proteins. So, if it really did make you sleepy, you’d feel the same after a yogurt as you do on Thanksgiving night. However, when combined with the digestion process described earlier, it can increase melatonin levels in your blood which does, in fact, make you very sleepy. Some studies suggest that using a tryptophan supplement can also help combat depression, but those studies relied on refined tryptophan rather than the kind found in a roast turkey.
So it seems that the tryptophan in turkey does make you sleepy, but only indirectly. At Colorado Recovery Infusion Center we love to study how these natural processes affect mood and behavior. We’d love to share what we know with our friends in the Denver area for the purposes of helping people feel their best.
Oh, and by the way, the best cure for post-holiday-meal sleepiness is a good night’s rest.
Enjoy the holidays and eat well,
Dr. Beth Ballen