To me, Thanksgiving means watching Thursday-afternoon football while dressed in my Sunday's best, indulging in a spread of homemade dishes by Mom, enjoying seconds and thirds of pumpkin pie, and succumbing to a food coma that lasts through Black Friday. It’s ironic that the main course is what tends to cause our food fog, but every year, everyone’s left wondering, why does turkey make you tired? Spoiler: It’s not because grandma’s special stuffing drugged the bird, folks.
Thanksgiving is (obviously) meant for giving thanks and showing gratitude for the little blessings that keep us breathing. But, if we’re being honest, it’s more or less become a national holiday dedicated to stuffing our faces through dinner and dessert. Truth be told, though, even if you skip a serving of turkey, chances are, you're likely to still feel a bit tired. According to science, your level of drowsiness post-turkey-dinner isn’t all to blame on the bird.
Here’s the big to-do about turkey: The human body is incapable of producing tryptophan, an amino acid used to produce vitamin B and serotonin, which helps regulate your sleep cycle. Your body can't produce this chemical on its own, which means it's derived from food items like your savory poultry, according to Mental Floss.
But the bird isn’t the only reason you’re falling into a food coma after Thanksgiving dinner.
In fact, the turkey may not be an issue at all. Your sleepiness is contingent more on what and how much you eat generally throughout the day. Turkey has a significant amount of tryptophan, but because the amino acid actually competes with the body’s other amino acids entering the brain, it needs a little assistance to break through and make way into your bloodstream, and that’s where your favorite side dishes come into play.
Mom’s famous stuffing, Dad’s mashed potatoes, and delicious pieces of rye bread are all the factors that make it possible for tryptophan to have you feeling (let's be real, needing) a nap by 5 p.m. Carbohydrates release insulin into the bloodstream, removing a slew of amino acids, except tryptophan. With less competition for the brain’s attention, tryptophan makes its move, snuggles into the brain, and forms serotonin, then melatonin, making you desperate for a snooze between courses.
So, as much as you may want to blame too much turkey for all the lethargic feels on Thanksgiving, the poor bird is really only a scapegoat here. It’s less about the amount of poultry you’re consuming, and more of a reflection of everything else piled onto your plate, too.
And let us not forget about the sleepy effects of alcohol.
For many people, holiday feasts are as much for eating as they are for drinking. To boost celebratory spirits, it’s almost assumed that at Thanksgiving dinner, beverages like wine, beer, and hard cider will be offered, and if you’re going for a refill or two, chances are it’s really not just the turkey on your plate making you tired.
Alcohol enters the bloodstream within about 20 minutes of finishing a glass. Since alcohol is such a small molecule, it can attack the brain’s protein neurons quickly, interfering with a person’s neurotransmitters and causing them to switch gears.
Leslie Morrow, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, told Live Science that when alcohol interferes with neurons, it causes “relaxation, sedation, [and] sleepiness.” In other words, it might be the booze making you want to snooze as soon as dinner is done. To ensure you're wide awake for dessert, it might be a good idea to switch to water after that first glass of champagne.
Luckily, there are lots of ways of getting around a food coma.
Personally, I don’t mind the sleepy feels after a hearty Thanksgiving meal, but if you’d rather skip the snooze and bond with your fam in ways that go beyond snoring through reruns of It’s A Wonderful Life, there are ways to avoid it.
To keep your eyelids from drooping during supper, be mindful of your munching. You don't have to skip a serving of sweet potato soufflé, or your aunt's specialty stuffed mushrooms to stay awake. Beth Warren, R.D.N., founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living a Real Life With Real Food, told SELF that the real trick is to eat your meal slowly.
Once you sit down to dinner with relatives you maybe haven't seen in awhile, it's easy to get lost in conversation and mindlessly shovel forkful after forkful of delicious food into your mouth without actually tasting any of it. When you eat quickly, your brain isn't given enough time to register whether or not you're actually full, so you actually end up eating way more than what your body needs.
Another way to make sure you don't eat too much and pass out on the couch (or worse, feel sick) is to plan ahead by being mindful of what you're eating earlier in the day.
Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D.N., co-author of Healthy in a Hurry: Easy, Good-For-You Recipes for Every Meal of the Day, told SELF that when you skip meals before Thanksgiving courses in order to "save room" for later, this method is likely to backfire, and will probably cause you to overeat by the time you sit down for dinner.
Incorporating more veggies into your meal can help, too.
Believe me, I know it's tempting to load all the yummy carbs onto your plate at Thanksgiving dinner, but don't forget to eat at least one serving of all the delicious veggies your parents put on the table, too.
Veggies take less time and energy to digest than animal meat, and there's a ton of protein hiding in all of those leafy greens often left untouched next to the canned cranberry sauce and corn. Making sure at least some of your plate includes vegetables will cut down your drowsiness and add a little pep to your step, all while helping you save room for dessert, too.