Why do holiday meals make me sleepy?

PCC Taste | November 2011

Ask the Nutritionist podcast

Learn why big feasts send us off to dreamland and hear more about tryptophan, an essential amino acid found naturally in turkey and a variety of foods that can help relieve symptoms of insomnia, mild depression and other mood disorders.

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Have you ever noticed how everyone wants to take a nap after the big Thanksgiving meal? Ever wondered if it is something in the food? Many people believe that the nap-inducing powers of Thanksgiving dinner are a direct result of the essential amino acid tryptophan in the turkey.

Turkey definitely is one of the best dietary sources of tryptophan. But tryptophan also is found in other meats (chicken, beef, lamb); seafood (tuna, salmon, shrimp); and some seeds (pumpkin, sesame). Some tryptophan is used by the body to synthesize the vitamin niacin. The rest travels to the brain, where it's converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin and then into melatonin (which makes us sleepy).

This reaction can help relieve symptoms of insomnia, mild depression and other mood disorders. Tryptophan is available as a dietary supplement at PCC to help treat a variety of sleep and stress-related conditions.

But back to Thanksgiving. Eating a large meal causes our blood sugar (and therefore our insulin) to peak at levels they don't normally reach. The elevated blood levels of insulin and tryptophan following the traditional Thanksgiving feast create the "perfect nutritional storm" for a good siesta. The insulin drives most amino acids (but not tryptophan) into muscle cells, increasing the ratio of tryptophan to other amino acids in the circulation. The tryptophan then can flow right across the blood-brain barrier, where it will be converted into serotonin. Sweet dreams.

by Nick Rose, M.S., PCC Nutrition Educator

More about: health and body care products, holidays, nutrition, podcasts, turkey

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Nick Rose, M.S.

Nick Rose, PCC Cooks instructor

As a Nutrition Educator for PCC Natural Markets, Nick leads weekly "Walk, Talk, and Taste" classes, where he reveals the seasonal, sustainable, and delicious food choices found at PCC. Before coming to PCC, Nick taught nutrition courses at Bastyr University and his alma mater-Virginia Tech.

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