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Does Tryptophan in Turkey Make You Tired?

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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What Is Tryptophan?

Is eating turkey responsible for the lethargy and drowsiness that often occur after a Thanksgiving feast? Many people believe that consuming turkey can make you sleepy, since turkey meat contains high levels of an amino acid known as tryptophan, one of the so-called essential amino acids (that are essential for protein formation but cannot be manufactured by the body) in our diet. Tryptophan is an important precursor for the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has a calming, sleep-inducing effect on the brain.

Tryptophan supplements were used as a popular sleeping aid until 1990, when the substance was banned by the U.S. FDA after a batch of contaminated product manufactured in Japan was associated with many cases of a rare and potentially fatal condition known as eosinophilic myalgia.

A Thanksgiving Myth

But the fact that the turkey is responsible for the Thanksgiving evening slump is a myth. For tryptophan to have a sedative effect, it must be taken on an empty stomach. After a "modest" Thanksgiving meal of turkey, stuffing, vegetables, sweet potatoes, gravy, rolls, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream, you aren't going to experience any sedative effects of tryptophan in the turkey. It's worth noting that turkey isn't the only food rich in tryptophan. Pork, chicken, and cheese also contain tryptophan, yet these foods are not associated with unusual or increased sleepiness after consumption.

Why Does Thanksgiving Dinner Make You Sleepy?

Then why are you drowsy after the Thanksgiving meal? Feeling sleepy after consuming large quantities of food is normal, especially after a high-carbohydrate feast containing sweets, potatoes, and bread. Alcohol consumption can also have a sedative effect, so a glass of wine with your meal, particularly for those who may not drink alcohol regularly, might also contribute to your lethargy.

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Reviewed on 11/26/2018
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