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Moment of Science: Turkey and Tryptophan

Is tryptophan to blame for tiring you out on Thanksgiving? Let’s talk turkey
Published: Nov. 23, 2021 at 5:05 PM EST
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Ah, Thanksgiving... a time for love, laughter, and consuming every conceivable food within arm’s reach. We often blame the turkey for that post-dinner nap, but let’s explore why that big cooked bird may not be the culprit here.

* Let’s start with “amino acids”, those molecules that make up the building blocks of proteins. About 500 are known in nature, but tryptophan is one of 20 amino acids in the human body, and is one of half of those that our body can’t produce naturally. When you eat foods with tryptophan, that converts to Vitamin B3 (niacin), which in turn helps create serotonin -- that molecule that reduces pain and helps you sleep better. Going a step further, you get melatonin, which a lot of people take the artificial version to regulate their sleep habits, but there’s nothing like the real thing.

* Just getting that tryptophan into your system isn’t enough... not really high up on your brain’s priority list. The real answer to your post-dinner fatigue lies with carbs! Those create insulin, which converts and clears out almost every other amino acid... except tryptophan! Voila, a more direct path to your brain and Sleepytown, USA.

* Turkey certainly has tryptophan, but chicken and beef have about the same amount, with sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds having even more. Cheddar cheese: 50% more. Parmesan: doubles it up, and egg whites have about 4x as much tryptophan as turkey does.

* The takeaway here is that tryptophan PLUS carb-laden foods are more likely to help make you sleepy than turkey on its own. I recommend not overthinking it and enjoying good food with friends, family, or your pets... as long as you check what’s safe for them to eat first.

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