Thanksgiving is full of great food, friends, and laughs. What usually follows is a family member (or two) asleep on the couch. The urge to nap after a Thanksgiving meal is common. For years, we have blamed the turkey for this slumber, claiming a heavy dose of tryptophan was to fault. However, recent years have exonerated our feathered friends. This article will debunk the Thanksgiving turkey slumber debacle, illuminate why we truly feel tired after a heavy meal, and provide strategies to energetically enjoy our Thanksgiving evening.
Turkey contains an amino acid, tryptophan. Tryptophan is used by the body to make vitamin B3 and produce serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone that has been shown to promote sleep. Thus, it does appear logical that turkey could cause us to feel tired. However, there are two main points of contention for this theory: 1) the mechanism of action for tryptophan 2) the volume of turkey needed to aid sleep.
After we eat turkey, tryptophan is transported through circulation. It needs to enter the brain in order to be converted to serotonin. When we consume tryptophan on its own (like in a sleep aid or on an empty stomach) it can enter the brain with little competition and make us feel tired. However, when we consume tryptophan with other amino acids or proteins, it has to compete with the other amino acids for access to the brain. This competition leads to less serotonin production and less fatigue.
There is a large volume of turkey needed to accumulate enough tryptophan to act as an effective sleep aid. Research has shown that 1 gram of tryptophan (taken 45 minutes before bed) can decrease the time it takes to fall asleep for those with mild insomnia or longer than average sleep latency. Extreme drowsiness has been found with doses between 7.5 and 12 grams of tryptophan. One serving of turkey (3 ounces) contains between 250 and 310 mg of tryptophan. This means that even at least 3.22 servings (9.66 ounces) of turkey would need to be consumed to impact the sleep of mild insomniacs and people who have trouble falling asleep. In order to experience extreme drowsiness, we would need to consume a whopping 24 servings of turkey. That is 4.5 pounds of turkey. Thus, it seems unlikely that our holiday bird is the sole reason for us dozing off after dinner.
So, what really makes us sleepy at Thanksgiving?
Now that we have taken turkey off the list of main culprits for inducing the post-Thanksgiving nap, who should we turn to as our lead suspect? There are four other suspects that contribute to our holiday slumber.
Traditional Thanksgiving meals contain a lot of high-carbohydrate options. Stuffing, cranberry sauce, yams, mashed potatoes, and all of those delicious desserts can easily spike our blood sugar. The quick rise in blood sugar prompts an equally fast blood sugar crash that can have us feeling fatigued and tired shortly after eating.
The Volume of Food
We are distracted by conversation with friends or suddenly spot our favorite side dish that wasn’t added to our plate and the volume of delicious food quickly adds up. The sheer volume of food that we consume in one meal impacts our digestion. Our body pulls blood to our stomach in order to digest our Thanksgiving meal. Meanwhile, less blood is available for our brain to help us stay alert and awake.
While holidays are intended to be a relaxing time with loved ones, the preparation for this relaxation can, ironically, be very stressful. Grocery store runs for ingredients, meal prep in the kitchen, cleaning the house, or traveling to our holiday destination can all be demanding. Thus, it should come as no surprise that we are a bit worn out and tired after finally being able to sit down and relax post-meal.
Having a few drinks with dinner can also contribute to our sleepiness. Alcohol functions as a depressant for the central nervous system. It slows down the firing of our neurons (cells that send messages between the brain and the nervous system). When neuron firing slows, it causes us to feel fatigued and sleepy.
How can we avoid feeling sleepy after Thanksgiving?
First and foremost, it is okay to nap. Part of improving our well-being includes sleep health. If you feel run down or tired then, by all means, take a break. However, if you are looking to improve metabolic health and avoid blood sugar-induced fatigue then there are a few strategies that you can utilize this holiday season.
The order in which you eat your food has a significant impact on how it is processed by the body. If we head straight for the high carbohydrate options (bread, mashed potatoes, candied yams, pie) the high sugar content provides a quick source of fuel for the body. It spikes the blood sugar and then quickly overcompensates by having your blood sugar take a nosedive about one or two hours later. This phenomenon is called reactive hypoglycemia. It can start you on a blood sugar roller-coaster that can be challenging to manage.
A simple way to reduce the likelihood of reactive hypoglycemia is to reduce the magnitude of the initial glucose spike. Consuming proteins and/or fat before carbohydrates promotes the release of a hormone (glucagon-like peptide-1) that slows gastric emptying and reduces insulin and glucagon. By slowing gastric emptying glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) allows glucose to enter the bloodstream at a more manageable rate, as opposed to the quick sugar dump that would be experienced after sneaking a piece of pie before dinner.
Consuming high-fiber foods (like a salad) before your main meal has also been shown to significantly reduce postprandial blood glucose. However, fiber acts on blood sugar independently of the hormone GLP-1. Thus, by consuming fiber with protein and/or fat we can work to lower blood sugar from multiple angles. Saving foods high in simple carbohydrates until the end of a healthy meal will minimize the glucose spike, and have you feeling full longer.
Everything in Moderation
This is the golden rule of nutrition, even outside of the holiday season. Eating small, healthy, meals throughout the day will help to keep blood sugar levels stable. When our blood sugar is properly managed, we reduce those sudden feelings of hunger and cravings that have us reaching for the first thing we see, even if it is unhealthy. Snacking throughout the day means that we can slow down and make mindful food choices at dinner. It also makes it less likely for us to overdo it with one large, sleep-inducing, meal (since we already know a large volume of food shunts blood to the digestive system and makes us sleepy).
Take a GOOD IDEA to Thanksgiving dinner
Better yet… grab GOOD IDEA for the entire table. Pairing a GOOD IDEA with your dinner will help to reduce the post-meal glucose spike that leaves us feeling tired. Research has shown that drinking 1/3 of a GOOD IDEA before your meal and finishing the can with your food can help to lower post-meal glucose by an average of 25%.
This blood sugar reduction is due to a unique blend of five amino acids and chromium picolinate. The amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, valine, threonine and lysine) and chromium work together to synergistically increase insulin sensitivity and reduce post-meal blood sugar by an average of 25%. This allows the body to more effectively transport energy into the cells, use our food as fuel, and stabilize our blood glucose levels. The end result is reduced post-prandial blood glucose spikes, which can help improve energy levels and reduce cravings.
Take a Walk
Head outside, toss around a football, go for a walk, or check out the neighborhood’s holiday lights. Exercising after eating will help to utilize some of that glucose to fuel your exercise. This reduces the likelihood of feeling sleepy later due to reactive hypoglycemia. Aim for at least 30 minutes of continuous exercise approximately 30 to 45 minutes after eating in order to maximize the glucose control benefits.
A great meal with family, friends, football, and parades all sound enjoyable. Stuffed feeling or tiredness does not have to be part of the holiday tradition. Paying attention to the sequence of our meal, practicing moderation, pairing our meal with GOOD IDEA, or taking a walk after our meal can help us to enjoy the holiday while maintaining our metabolic health. Happy Thanksgiving!Author: Dr. Colleen Gulick