Does Turkey Make You Sleepy?

Southern Living Simple Roasted Turkey on a platter to serve
PHOTO: FRED HARDY, FOOD STYLIST: MARGARET MONROE DICKEY, PROP STYLIST: HANNAH GREENWOOD

Are you ready for a nap after Thanksgiving dinner? Do you swear that second helping of turkey has you ready to hit the hay rather than eager for a game of touch football? We’ve all heard that the amino acid tryptophan in turkeys causes drowsiness, but is it true? 

The short answer is no. To answer what causes that post-Thanksgiving food coma, Southern Living spoke with two Registered Dietitians to get to the bottom of this holiday conundrum. 

Chelsea Edwards is a Registered Dietician and owner of Huntsville Nutrition Collective in Huntsville, Alabama.

Amanda Frankeny is a Registered Dietician and the Program Director of the Food Dignity Movement.

Let’s Talk About Tryptophan

While you may have heard that tryptophan in turkey causes drowsiness, there’s also tryptophan in lots of everyday foods we eat. Frankeny, a Registered Dietician and Program Director of the Food Dignity Movement, explains: “The tryptophan content in turkey doesn’t differ much from more common meat sources like pork, beef, and chicken, and it can be found in more significant amounts in milk, cheese, and other dairy products. It’s also oatmeal, seeds, pumpkin, squash, and peanut butter. We don’t blame our drowsiness on any of these foods, so why do we call out turkey as a major drowsiness inducer?”

Potential Other Causes of the Post-Meal Crash

If the turkey isn’t to blame, then what is? Eating a larger and heavier meal (who can resist an extra helping of dressing or two slices of pie?) can cause fatigue, according to Edwards. “Many people eat more in one sitting at Thanksgiving than they do normally, so their blood sugar may increase more than normal, which leads to fatigue,” she adds. Here are a few additional factors.

Southern Living Homemade Mashed Potatoes in a bowl to serve
ROBBY LOZANO, FOOD STYLIST: EMILY NABORS HALL

Loading Up on Carbohydrates

Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pie, all the best parts of Thanksgiving dinner, are higher in carbohydrates and convert into glucose after you eat them. Paired with the turkey, that can create drowsiness. “Carbohydrates, which are converted to glucose in our body, aid in the uptake of tryptophan by the brain, which increases the production of serotonin and melatonin. So, the turkey, paired with a higher carbohydrate intake at Thanksgiving, can lead to increased production of both serotonin and melatonin. This can explain the happy, satisfied feeling after the large Thanksgiving meal, as well as why we might experience fatigue,” says Edwards. 

Drinking Alcohol

Alcohol can also cause both lethargy and insomnia, according to Frankeny. Studies have shown that drinking before bed can disrupt sleep, prevent REM sleep, and even keep you from sleeping.  

Stressing Over the Holiday

Family or travel stress can impact the body’s mood-boosting chemicals, increasing muscle tension and even draining energy. “The truth is, countless other factors zap your energy–overeating at once, the stress of big social gatherings, lack of or too much physical activity, tricky family dynamics, seasonal affective disorder or depression, sipping on alcohol, medical conditions like anemia or hypothyroidism–the list streams on,” notes Frankeny.

How To Avoid A Thanksgiving Food Coma

Here is how Frankeny and Edwards recommend avoiding a food coma:

  • Treat Thanksgiving like any other meal. “Eat a normal amount of food and reach fullness and satisfaction. If you’re struggling with feeling like some of the foods are a limited opportunity to eat on Thanksgiving, consider making them another time during the year,” says Edwards.
  • Limit alcohol. Stay hydrated.
  • Get active after dinner. “Wash the dishes, walk the dog, or challenge your family to a touch football game,” suggests Frankeny.
  • Prioritize sleep. Do your best to get rest and a good night’s sleep.
  • Manage stress. Create a plan and spread it across family and friends.