Ever feel drowsy after a turkey dinner? People will tell you that it’s because of the tryptophan content inside that rich roast bird. What is tryptophan? Does it really make you want to take a post-dinner nap, or is something else guilty of making you drowsy? Is it good for you? Read on as we try to solve the mystery of this sleepy substance.
What is Tryptophan?
Tryptophan is an amino acid that serves a variety of important functions. It’s essential for the production of niacin, which helps create serotonin, maintains your nervous system, aids in digestion, and converts food into energy. Tryptophan also plays a part in maintaining nitrogen balance in your body, which tries to establish an equilibrium between the amount of nitrogen you consume from protein and the amount of nitrogen you excrete from your body. This process is critical when it comes to building muscle and recovering from exercise and other forms of strenuous activity.
There are two different types of tryptophan: L-tryptophan and D-tryptophan. You can get tryptophan through foods like:
- Canned Tuna
- Lean red meat
- Pumpkin seeds
- Whole wheat bread
Benefits of Tryptophan
A tryptophan-rich diet can provide several health benefits: a healthier, better quality of sleep; enhanced pain tolerance; and it can help alleviate anxiety. Research has also found that some people who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea or seasonal affective disorder have experienced some form of relief for their conditions due to tryptophan.
It’s important to remember that you CAN have too much of a good thing: too much tryptophan supplements in your system can cause some side effects. Talk to a doctor before taking tryptophan supplements. If you experience any of these symptoms, they might be a warning sign you need to lay off the roast turkey for a bit:
- Loss of appetite
- Sexual dysfunction
- Visual blurring
- Stomach pain
- Skin rashes
- Difficulty breathing
- Muscle pain or weakness
There is a common belief that eating turkey makes you sleepy because of its high tryptophan content. This isn’t necessarily true: while tryptophan can make you drowsy, there’s less tryptophan in turkey than you’d find in other popular foods like nuts and cheeses. The real reason why a turkey dinner often leads to a quick nap is because it’s a high calorie meal. When you eat a lot of high-carb, high-fat, and/or high-sugar foods in one go it can trigger a neural response in your parasympathetic nervous system that tells your body to slow down and stop eating so it can focus on digesting. That holiday nap is your body’s way of hitting the brakes before you eat enough food to cause a ten-car pileup inside your small intestine.
That being said: tryptophan can make you sleepy! Tryptophan can boost your melatonin levels, making it easier to get a good night's rest.