The tryptophan coma you’re expecting to undergo after Thanksgiving dinner is a myth. Turkey contains about the same amount of the amino acid that beef and cheese do, but you never get the same food sleep after a barbeque. Instead, turkey contains a relatively small amount of tryptophan, and what really puts you to sleep Thanksgiving day is the massive amount of carbohydrates that your body has to spend massive resources processing — you’re like a python after eating a deer.
But tryptophan does work as a sleep-inducing chemical (though some supplements of the stuff has been kind of, well, disease-causing), and we have studied it. So how much turkey would you have to eat to go into a food coma from the tryptophan alone?
From two studies we can get the range of tryptophan you would need to make you and your family sleepy. The first study, a meta-analysis or study summarizing many studies, looked back on 20-years worth of research. The abstract reads, “The weight of evidence indicates that L-tryptophan in doses of 1 grams or more produces an increase in rated subjective sleepiness and a decrease in sleep latency (time to sleep).” Let’s start there as the base amount we need to start drifting off.
Another study did two experiments with much more tryptophan — 7.5 grams and 12 grams — which induced “extreme drowsiness” in the subjects. Let’s make this the upper limits for our turkey coma.
Next we need the amount of tryptophan in turkey. The British Medical Journal puts the concentration at around 350 milligrams per 115 grams (4 ounces) of turkey meat. Now that we have all the numbers, we can do the math.
To start getting drowsy with 1 gram of tryptophan, you’d need to eat 0.7 pounds of turkey meat, or something like a 12 ounce steak. Let’s up the dose. To really feel the tryptophan effect — ingesting 7.5 grams of the chemical — you’d have to eat 5.4 pounds of turkey, or an entire day’s worth of food, by weight, in turkey alone. But what about a real food coma? Ingesting 12 grams of tryptophan would induce extreme drowsiness, but would require you to eat a whopping 8.6 pounds of turkey, or your baby cousin in weight…of turkey. These ridiculous amounts of meat might work, but even these doses likely pale in comparison to the sluggishness from digesting everything other than the tryptophan.
If you really want to go on a tryptophan trip, try seal meat — it contains almost 3x the tryptophan turkey does.