Thanksgiving Dinner Making You Sleepy? Don’t Blame The Turkey!

turkeyWe’ve all indulged in a Thanksgiving feast, or two, so chances are we have firsthand experience with the after-dinner fatigue that sets in following the meal. Why can’t we fight that sudden urge to take a nap? To escape the dishes? Perhaps, but the meal itself plays a big part in the way you feel.

Turkey has a bad wrap as being the culprit of after dinner lethargy, but truth be told you could omit the bird altogether and still need a nap. Turkey does have the makings of a natural sedative in i­t, an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning that the body can’t manufacture it. The body has to get tryptophan and other essential amino acids from food. Tryptophan helps the body produce the B-vitamin niacin, which, ­in turn, helps the body produce serotonin, a remarkable chemical that acts as a calming agent in the brain and plays a key role in sleep. So you might think that if you eat a lot of turkey, your body would produce more serotonin and you would feel calm and want a nap. However, tryptophan needs to be taken on an empty stomach, and without any other amino acids or proteins, in order to make you drowsy. There’s a lot of protein in a serving of turkey and chances are it’s not the only food on the Thanksgiving dinner table. 

Note: Did you know? There are twenty different amino acids found in the body which contribute to developing many different proteins (muscle, enzymes, antibodies, and organs). 

Tryptophan may be found in turkey, but it’s actually a carbohydrate-rich meal (a.k.a.  Thanksgiving dinner!) that increases the level of this amino acid in the brain and leads to serotonin synthesis. Carbohydrates stimulate the pancreas to secrete insulin. When this occurs, some amino acids that compete with tryptophan leave the bloodstream and enter muscle cells. This causes an increase in the relative concentration of tryptophan in the bloodstream. Serotonin is synthesized and you feel that familiar sleepy feeling. The same thing may happen to you after enjoying a large meal on your lunch-break. Unintentionally overeating at lunch leaves you with that warm, cozy feeling (serotonin), and your result is a very unproductive afternoon!

The fact is that turkey itself is probably not to blame for our post-Thanksgiving feast nap. When you think about your Thanksgiving meal, what does it include: turkey, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, pie, candies, potatoes, and maybe a green bean casserole? It is not just the turkey causing us to be sleepy, most of the problem is our overindulgence on primarily high carbohydrate foods.

Leading us to another factor to consider – Overeating! It takes a great deal of energy to digest a large meal. When your stomach is full, blood is directed away from other organ systems, including your nervous system. The result? You will feel the need to snooze after any big meal, particularly if it is high in fats (which slow down the digestive system) and carbohydrates.

So, how can we still enjoy our Thanksgiving meal without overeating? First, remember that Thanksgiving isn?t a holiday celebrating just food, it is a time to be gracious and enjoy loved ones. Slow down while you?re eating and enjoy the conversation. This way when everyone else is going back for seconds, you?re still on your first plate.

plate-methodAlso, remember the plate method. We can definitely enjoy our favorite foods on the holidays, we just have to do it sensibly. To make your plate look like the plate method, fill half with non-starchy veggies, 25% with your starchy foods, and 25% with lean protein. (see photo)

What foods go in each category?

Vegetables: leafy greens, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, squash (not in casseroles), onion, peppers, etc.

Starch & Bread: whole grains (bread, rice, quinoa, oats, bulgar, etc.), potatoes, fruits, peas, corn, beans/legumes

Meat/Proteins: fish, chicken, turkey, pork, beef, yogurts, nuts/seeds, beans/legumes, eggs

Our general recommendation for Thanksgiving is to stick with ONE plate. You can have whatever food you want, but challenge yourself to use the plate method. This is a great way to really decide what foods you love most on the holidays! If you have multiple starchy foods you want to include on your plate, no problem, here’s your opportunity to practice portion control! Your portion sizes should get smaller as you add more foods in each section.

So, why are you sleepy after a big turkey dinner? It’s a combination of the type of food, amount of food, celebratory atmosphere, and all the hard work that goes into making the meal. 

Happy Thanksgiving from Fitness Ridge Resorts!