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Eat All the Turkey You Want, Tryptophan is Not Your Food Coma Culprit

If you somehow manage to steer clear of talking politics or religion or why you still aren’t married while enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with your family this year, the small talk may meander to science. “The tryptophan,” they’ll say, “the tryptophan in this turkey sure is gonna make us sleepy later huh?” WRONG. Like your drunk uncle about anything this is wrong. The real reason behind your fowl-based food coma is more complicated than that.

As I attempt to explain in the video above, tryptophan is an amino acid, the building blocks of proteins that make continued existence as a multi-cellular organism possible. Tryptophan, in fact, is one of the essential amino acids, and as such you’ll find it in many other foods like cheddar cheese and bananas. Turkey doesn’t even have the highest content of the chemical for meat. That honor goes to seal liver, but then again you won’t find that at most Thanksgiving dinners.

This isn’t to say that tryptophan isn’t related to the sleepy feeling you get after scarfing down that third helping, it’s just not the main actor. Thanksgiving dinners are usually carbohydrate bonanzas, and when all those carbs undergo digestion, your body releases the chemical insulin into the bloodstream — a hormone that lets you use and store the sugar in those carbs. But when this happens, many of the other amino acids are leeched from the blood, leaving tryptophan behind.

Now with relatively little competition, the chemical can have an out-sized effect on your brain, as tryptophan helps make the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can convert to melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and sleepiness.

So while tryptophan is present in your Thanksgiving meal, it really is the carbo-load you’re shoving into your face that causes sleepiness. It’s the stuffing…of your face. Oh and all that wine doesn’t help.

Featured image: Dianne Rosete

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