Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sleepy after Turkey Day? Don’t blame the turkey!

Tryptophan is known as an amino acid. Amino acids are found in protein containing foods (meat, nuts, beans) and help to make many signaling molecules in the body, repair muscle and structural tissue, and build RNA and DNA. Tryptophan falls into the category of essential amino acid, meaning that it is one that must be consumed in the diet. Tryptophan is found in turkey, but also in pork, eggs, peanuts, fish and cheese—just to name a few. So how does tryptophan make us sleepy and why is it blamed for post Thanksgiving sleepiness?

In the body tryptophan is turned into serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood. Serotonin turns into melatonin, which is a hormone. Melatonin is made in the highest quantity at night to calm and relax the body. As a result of this conversion pathway, tryptophan can be used therapeutically for conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, eating disorders, pain and gastrointestinal problems. So you can see that if you consumed large amounts of tryptophan, the resulting serotonin and melatonin would calm and relax the body for rest. 

As far as the post Thanksgiving sleepiness that some experience, tryptophan may not be to blame since there are plenty of other foods with as much, if not more, tryptophan that we consume on a regular basis. The real reason for the post meal coma may really be the act of overindulgence. When we consume food, our body focuses its energy on digesting the meal. Signaling molecules tell the stomach and intestines to secrete many hormones and begin working to process and break down the food. One of these signaling hormones is insulin which is triggered by carbohydrate consumption. The large insulin release that is caused by carbohydrates and results indirectly in melatonin release, could be the real reason for post meal drowsiness. When a very large meal is consumed, more of the body’s energy is spent on the digestive process and less can be expended elsewhere—like the energy needed to stay awake and alert. 

If you are interested in avoiding the most meal snooze, perhaps eating slightly less or eating less of the carbohydrate containing dishes may actually be your best bet. If you do choose to indulge (just this once), be sure to prepare your seat on the couch so your body can go to work!

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