Episode 31: November 23, 2012
by Lee Falin, PhD
Every favorite holiday has its associated myths and legends. Since this is Thanksgiving weekend, it's fitting to investigate one myth that people love to believe: Eating turkey makes you sleepy.
But is this really true? If it is, why don’t turkey cold cuts carry a warning against operating heavy machinery? Let’s look at the science behind the myth.
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Like most good myths, a little science seems to go a long way to perpetuating it. The science behind turkey-induced sleep is a little amino acid called tryptophan. Since some research has shown positive results in using tryptophan as a sleeping aid, and since turkey is known to contain large amounts of tryptophan, it must follow that eating turkey does in fact make you sleepy.
Unfortunately, it isn’t the tryptophan that is making you sleepy. In fact, quite a few foods contain considerably more tryptophan than turkey: sunflower seeds, Parmesan cheese, and even eggs all contain more tryptophan than turkey.
So what is causing your annual post-Thanksgiving coma? Most likely it is the large amount of carbohydrates that most people ingest during the feast, which triggers a chain-reaction of biochemical effects inside your body that lead to drowsiness.
If you want to try a fun experiment, plan a large feast for yourself and your friends or family that consists of lots of carbohydrates, but no turkey. Then eat a lot of food, sit around and chat with your friends for a couple of hours afterwards and see how you feel. While this isn’t the most scientific method of debunking a popular holiday hoax, it may just be the tastiest.
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