#3: Don't Blame it on the Tryptophan

It was 2010 and the feast was epic - a Thanksgiving that will live on in the bellies of infamy. We started off like so many American families, watching football, knocking back microbrews, and nibbling on pigs in a blanket. Turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad, dinner rolls, and who could forget the sweet smorgasbord of desserts - pecan pie, apple pie, chocolate cake and cookies...and then...we all passed out. There was not a single man standing. Every one of us passed out on the couch (see image).

Thanksgiving pass out.jpg

The same scene repeats itself in living rooms across the country on turkey day every year. And who do we blame? Tryptophan. Whose fault is it when you face plant in your desk after a turkey sandwich at the office? Tryptophan. And, when you have turkey pot pie? Tryptophan, again. But are we really blaming the right culprit? Is tryptophan the reason millions of Americans pass out on Thanksgiving?

Before we explore the answer to that question, we first need to know what tryptophan is and what it does in our bodies. L-tryptophan, or tryptophan, as it is commonly called, is one of nine essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of our body and are obtained from protein sources like, eggs, poultry, fish and beef. They make up everything from DNA to hormones.

L-tryptophan is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin which plays a key role in balancing your mood, increasing happiness and relaxation. Serotonin is also a precursor to the hormone melatonin, which helps you sleep. And so the conventional logic goes: turkey has tryptophan - tryptophan is needed to produce neurotransmitters that make you sleepy, happy and relaxed - you eat too much turkey on Thanksgiving, which has tryptophan, so that must be the reason you feel tired.

Right? Wrong. Turkey is just one of many sources of tryptophan and everything from eggs, cheddar cheese, soy, cod fish, pork chops and chicken have either just as much or more tryptophan as turkey. So if it’s not the turkey, then what’s causing the Thanksgiving snoozefest?

Well, for starters, on Thanksgiving, we eat a lot of foods that are high in carbohydrates. The digestive process breaks down carbs into glucose, aka sugar. When sugar enters the bloodstream, the pancreas secretes the hormone insulin which lowers blood sugar levels by moving the glucose out of the blood and into the cells of the brain, liver and muscles to be used or stored for future energy needs.

Bringing it back to turkey day crashing, when we consume too many high carbohydrate foods like stuffing, mashed potatoes and corn bread in one sitting, our blood sugar soars. Since excess glucose in the blood is toxic, the pancreas must secrete extra insulin to rapidly remove the sugar. The result is a blood sugar that dips so low that you get sleepy. So, passing out after Thanksgiving comes from too much carbs, not too much high protein turkey.

Now you might be saying to yourself “Overeating on Thanksgiving is my annual rite of passage! You seriously can’t expect me to be both thankful and healthy that day!” What we are saying, is to be more mindful of what you fill up on. Here are three quick tips to start:

  1. First, don’t be afraid to eat some fat at the table. Enjoy the turkey skin and the dark meat, which has both a higher fat and nutrient profile than white meat. While white meat is lower in fat, dark meat has more zinc and iron. Eating fat will fill you up the natural way, so you have less room for all those empty calorie carbs.

  2. Offer to make a low glycemic and low carb side dish like garlicky kale or roasted brussel sprouts. Kale is one of the best sources of B vitamins and important for detoxification, while brussels are high in Vitamin C and other antioxidants that fight cancer. 

  3. Don’t combine fruits with starches. If your grandma passes you the fruit bowl for dessert and you also take a piece of pie, you can rest assured that gas or bloating will be sure to follow. That’s because when fruits and grains are combined, the grains get digested first, while the fruits ferment. You’re better off choosing one or the other.  

We hope we shared some helpful tips so you can make great choices this year. Happy turkey day, everyone!