Why Does Turkey Make You Sleepy? The Thanksgiving Staple Is Actually Not to Blame

Here’s why you may be craving some Zs after Thanksgiving dinner.


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Just as traditional as a Thanksgiving feast is the post-dinner nap. Grandparents are zonked out in armchairs, kids are mindlessly scrolling through their devices, and the hosts are slumped in their seats dreading the dirty dishes (guests - help them out!). The tiredness that comes after the biggest meal of the year is often attributed to the once-a-year roast turkey dinner, but the turkey is likely not what’s causing your need for an epic Thursday nap. Even if you ate tofurkey or no turkey at all, you may be stifling some yawns after a festive feast. A long day of eating enormous portions, plus all the emotional highs (and possibly lows) may be the cause of your Turkey Day exhaustion. Here’s why. 

“It’s probably not the turkey, or the notorious tryptophan it contains, which is thought to enhance relaxation or sleepiness,” says Dr. Stacie J. Stephenson, a functional medicine doctor and author of Vibrant: A Groundbreaking Program to Get Energized, Own Your Health, and Glow. Turkey causing drowsiness is a noted “medical myth” according to an article in the British Medical Journal. “While tryptophan, or more properly, l-tryptophan, an amino acid, is linked to mood and has been marketed as a sleep aid, turkey doesn’t actually contain all that much compared to other foods,” Stephenson explains. In fact, beef, chicken, pork, tuna, and whole milk all contain about the same amount of tryptophan as turkey, about 250-300 milligrams (mg) in 3 ounces

Your need for a post-meal nap may be due to the simple act of overeating. “The more you eat, the more your body has to divert resources away from your brain and muscles to do the work of digesting all that food,” Stephenson says. “The discomfort of a stretched stomach can cause fatigue. What’s more, high-protein meals as well as high-carbohydrate meals cause many people to feel sleepy, and Thanksgiving dinner typically is both high-protein and high-carb. Add a few glasses of celebratory wine and the stress of having extended family together in one home for hours or days at a time, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for exhaustion.” Stephenson adds that the tryptophan in the turkey may be the proverbial poultry icing on the cake, causing you to feel relaxed enough to doze off, but “it’s certainly not the sole, or primary, culprit.” 

So what’s the deal with tryptophan? It can affect your mood, but not so much energy levels. “If anything, eating a meal high in tryptophan makes you feel better, not worse,” Stephenson says. “It’s necessary in the body for learning, memory, cognition, and mood regulation. It’s been used to treat both anxiety and sleep disorders because it is relaxing.” Dietary tryptophan has been proven to decrease anxiety and depressive symptoms. 

How to Combat Holiday Tiredness

If you want to stay up for the post-Thanksgiving afterparty, that’s totally possible, even after indulging in a turkey drumstick. Enjoying small portions is the best way to keep energy levels up—eat until you're sated, not until you're stuffed. A midnight snack can still await. “Have some of everything you really want, but just have a little. Don’t pile up your plate,” Stephenson recommends. While everyone gossips, debates, and reflects, resist the urge to scoop up seconds. The leftovers will be there. “You may want to [eat seconds] in the moment, but you’ll be glad later when everyone else is groaning,” Stephenson says. “Stay energized and joyful by focusing on who you are with.” 

Bottom line, stuffing yourself is a recipe for crashing. “When you eat large amounts of food, you take in large amounts of glucose, which your body must respond to by pumping out large amounts of insulin, to get that glucose out of your bloodstream and into your muscles, liver, and fat cells,” Stephenson says. “Surges of blood sugar followed by surges of insulin can exhaust the body in multiple ways. Blood sugar that goes too high, followed by insulin that goes too high causing blood sugar to go too low, is a roller-coaster that is physically stressful.” 

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