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Thanksgiving, Turkey, and Tryptophan, a Sleepy Tradition?

Posted by Joan Salge Blake  November 18, 2011 10:19 AM

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Do some of your dinner guests (most likely family members) end up napping after consuming your big Thanksgiving Day feast?

Folklore has it that the tryptophan-rich turkey is the reason behind the prevalence of snoozers sprawled out in your living room after the leftovers are tucked away. 

Tryptophan is one of 20 amino acids found in foods and can be converted in your brain to the neurotransmitters, serotonin and melatonin.  Since both of these compounds play an important role in regulating sleep, it seems quite logical that tryptophan has always been fingered as the sleep-inducing culprit behind the Thanksgiving Day nap.  But if you look a little further into the science (or lack of) behind this folklore, you will soon realize that this tryptophan theory just doesn’t make any physiological sense.  Turkey isn’t the only potent source of tryptophan in the diet.  In fact, a roasted chicken breast actually contains more tryptophan than turkey.  So the question that you need to ask is, do your guests fall asleep after you serve them a chicken dinner? 

The very common Thanksgiving Day nap is more likely caused by another culprit or a combination of circumstances that are part of this holiday’s festivities.  According to the experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research, when you eat a very large meal, such as  turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, your gastrointestinal tract has to work harder to digest all this food.  In order for your body to do all this extra work, some of your body’s blood supply is redirected away from your brain to the gut.  This shifting of energy-rich blood from the brain to your gastrointestinal tract can cause you to feel tired.  

Food aside, your beverage of choice at dinner may also play a role.  Alcohol also has sedating properties so if you are enjoying your dinner with a bottle of Pinot Noir, there could be a good chance that some of your guests will be snoring before dessert is served.

Let’s not also forget all of the extra work that goes into creating Thanksgiving.  The amount of time and effort needed to shop, prepare, and cleanup the food served would give anyone cause to cuddle up on the couch for a post-dinner nap.

Lastly, one of the best rationales for the traditional Thanksgiving Day nap comes from William Anthony, a professor at Boston University and the author of The Art of Napping.  According to Anthony, those who nap the most in our society are toddlers, senior citizens, and college-age students.  Why?  Because these folks have a lifestyle that affords them the most opportunity to nap.   Thanksgiving Day ends up being a popular day to nap because the opportunity presents itself, claims Anthony.   After the football games are over, what else is there to do?

In fact, if you plan to head out at midnight to power shop on Black Friday, it may make all the sense in the world to take an afternoon nap on Thanksgiving Day.

Do you or your guests take a nap on Thanksgiving Day?  Please share below.

Originally published on the blog Nutrition and You!.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, is a clinical associate professor and registered dietitian at Boston University in the Nutrition Program. Joan is the author of Nutrition &You, 2nd Edition, More »

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