The myth of turkey and tryptophan

As we all look forward to some socially acceptable gluttony tomorrow, let’s fast-forward to the inevitable consequences: the food coma. You know how it goes. You say you’ll just get a bite of everything, but then the cranberry sauce really only happens once a year and that new sweet potato dish looks amazing and hey, Brussels sprouts are vegetables so they basically don’t count. And then someone breaks out the pie. When it’s all over, everyone collapses.

The turkey has gotten a bad rap for causing a national food coma on Thanksgiving, but it doesn’t deserve the blame. Hear me out. It’s true that turkey contains tryptophan, an amino acid that is a building block for proteins. It’s also true that tryptophan makes you sleepy: when it reaches your brain, enzymes convert it into serotonin and melatonin, both of which regulate wakefulness. The problem with the turkey myth lies in the path the tryptophan takes. It doesn’t make a bee-line for your brain, eager to sabotage any productivity you were hoping to eke out of the afternoon. It would actually prefer to avoid the brain altogether and just hang out with your muscles, but all of those delicious carbs eaten with the turkey flood the bloodstream with insulin that clears out most of the other amino acids and sends the tryptophan straight to your brain. Which sends you straight to your bed.

Come on, we all knew it was the pie’s fault, right?

The myth of turkey and tryptophan |

One other note in defense of the bird: all meats and cheeses contain tryptophan, as do foods like eggs and spinach. Turkey doesn’t even top the list.

If you’ve managed to fight the food coma so far and need more reading, check out this article from Northwestern (I used to work in the office that published it!) or this piece in the Washington Post.