The real reason that turkey dinner made you so sleepy

Congratulations — you made it through Thanksgiving!

Aunt Betty didn’t start a fight with Uncle Bob, the turkey was done to perfection, and the dog didn’t ransack the trash and have to be rushed to the vet hospital.

And by now, everyone is predictably conked out on the couch.

But is it true what they say, and really the turkey that causes this traditional post-Thanksgiving lethargy?

You’ve probably heard that something called tryptophan, an amino acid found in turkey, is the reason we get so sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner.

Well, that’s not 100 percent true (it might have something more to do with how much you ate!) — but tryptophan can, in fact, help you sleep better and even feel better.

And it’s not just on Thanksgiving! But there’s a trick to help your body utilize this amino acid, so that you can get all the benefits it has to offer.

Happy foods

When we think of “comfort foods,” the ones that tend to come to mind may be mac and cheese, fried chicken, biscuits, pudding… I’m sure you have a favorite.

But the real comfort foods are the ones that can actually make you feel good – and not just while you’re eating them, either.

Which brings me back to turkey.

Turkey — as well as chicken, nuts, seeds, cheese, eggs and many other foods — are all high in tryptophan. And what tryptophan does that’s so amazing is that it allows your body to produce more of what’s called the “happiness hormone,” serotonin. Many studies have found that being low on serotonin is linked to angry outbursts, mood imbalances and even depression.

Plus that, serotonin also allows your brain to make the right amount of melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep/wake cycles, so you can get a good night’s rest.

While the tryptophan / serotonin / melatonin connection seems to confirm that post-Thanksgiving sleepy feeling, it’s not exactly that simple.

First, along with that turkey, you’ve probably just also had stuffing, gravy potatoes, salads, casseroles – in other words, a whole lot of food. Add to that some wine and dessert, and you’ve got a recipe for being bushed!

So yes, while turkey is high in tryptophan, it’s more likely that it was your entire Thanksgiving feast, and not the turkey, to blame for being so tired afterwards.

But even after Thanksgiving is over, this important amino acid is something you should still be thinking about. To get the most it has to offer, there’s a simple tryptophan trick that can help you feel better during the day and sleep better at night.

Turkey and all the other foods high in tryptophan don’t magically create serotonin simply because you eat them. Actually, tryptophan can have a hard time making it from your bloodstream to your brain, so it could use some help.

And that help can come in the form of a small amount of carbs. You can think of the process as being like a police escort getting the tryptophan past other competing amino acids and into your brain.

You don’t need a lot of those helper-carbs — and they can (and should) be healthier ones such as whole grains, beans and sweet potatoes (bet you have some leftovers on that!).

Another way to help tryptophan start the process that helps produce more of that happiness hormone, serotonin, is to make sure you’re not deficient in vitamins C and B6 or magnesium.

And once you run out of turkey leftovers, here are some other go-to foods rich in trypophan that will also give you one of those deeply satisfying – and comforting – naps, anytime of year:

  • Seeds and nuts: including chia, sesame and sunflower seeds, and almonds, cashews and pistachios,
  • Cheeses: like cheddar, mozzarella and Swiss, and
  • Fish: such as salmon, halibut and mackerel.

Here’s hoping you and your loved ones had a very happy Thanksgiving!