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Thanksgiving food coma: Why does turkey make me sleepy?

Learn why your Thanksgiving dinner may promote sleepiness and how to combat a food-induced nap.

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The leaves are turning different hues, the air is crisp and cool, and Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas is You is about to be cued on every store's playlist. You know what that means -- Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and we'll be loosening our belts another notch to make room for the holiday's feast. 

Have you ever noticed yourself craving a lengthy snooze after a Thanksgiving dinner? The official term is "postprandial somnolence," aka a food coma, and it's a common phenomenon caused by a number of different factors -- one of which is the perfectly sleep-inducing combination of popular Thanksgiving menu items. Continue reading to find out why you get sleepy after eating and how to avoid a post-dinner nap this holiday. 

Turkey plus carbs equals fatigue 

Turkey often gets a bad rap as the culprit behind Thanksgiving sleepiness because it contains a fair amount of a large amino acid called tryptophan. Humans already have a significant amount of tryptophan in the bloodstream (along with other large amino acids), which is converted to serotonin in the brain -- a neurotransmitter responsible for making you feel tired. That said, turkey alone isn't enough to send you into a slumber. 

Carbohydrates from your mashed potatoes, stuffing and dinner rolls are also to blame in this equation. In fact, without those delicious but starchy sides, the turkey would have little effect on your lethargy. When you consume carbs, your pancreas releases insulin and in turn, the large amino acids in your blood levels are lowered, with the exception of tryptophan. As a result, the carbs intensify the power of the tryptophan and trigger you to feel drowsy. 

Other foods containing tryptophan

Interestingly enough, turkey -- compared to other foods -- isn't even that high in tryptophan. It lands in 55th place behind these tryptophan-rich items: 

  • Sea lion
  • Elk
  • Seaweed
  • Soy
  • Soy sauce
  • Spinach
  • Eggs
  • Halibut
  • Salmon
  • Crab

However, it's not all about what you eat. Food-induced sleepiness also has to do with the amount you consume on Thanksgiving relative to your usual serving sizes. 

Overeating can also make you feel tired 

Eating bigger portions than usual over the holiday is also a contributing factor to your sleepiness. The more you eat, the more blood has to be sent to your stomach and intestines to help your body digest the food. This leaves less blood throughout the rest of your body, leaving you feeling tired after a large meal.

There's also evidence that the gut-brain axis, rather than the redistribution of blood flow, plays an important role in triggering a food coma. After you eat, your gut secretes hormones like melatonin and orexins that lower your heart rate and put you into a "rest and digest" state, rather than "fight or flight" state.

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3 tips to avoid a Thanksgiving food coma

There's nothing wrong with enjoying those post-dinner naps while you can -- holidays are for rest, after all -- but if you're hoping to avoid becoming one with the couch this year, try these tips.

1. Eat more protein: Protein has the opposite effect of carbs in that it raises all the amino acid levels in your blood, minimizing the effect of tryptophan. So this year, reach for extra protein and vegetables at the dinner table rather than mashed potatoes (as hard as that might be). 

2. Eat comfortable portions: Try not to overstuff yourself with dinner and dessert -- instead, eat until you're comfortably full and satiated. Remember, next-day Thanksgiving leftovers are just as good as the first time around. 

3. Take a post-dinner walk: Not only does physical activity boost your energy, but taking a walk after your Thanksgiving meal can help your body digest. The majority of the digestion process occurs in your small intestine, and a walk helps transport the food from your stomach into your intestine quicker. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.