The Real Reasons America Naps on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is, of course, a time to give thanks. But it’s also synonymous with family and friends gathering in merriment to over indulge in everything from pumpkin soufflé and green bean casserole to mashed potatoes and Aunt Sal’s famous chocolate pie. And, of course, the unwavering Thanksgiving staple – turkey.

And after food has been consumed, libations have been had, stories have been relived and belts inevitably loosened, it’s time to – what a Dunkin Donuts survey states 58% of Americans will do – take a Thanksgiving nap. And everyone knows why more than half of America will be snoozing on Thanksgiving – because of the tryptophan in the Turkey.

Nope. Wrong. And it’s high time we stopped blaming the bird.

Yes, turkey contains high levels of l-tryptophan, an amino acid that contributes to the creation of the sleep inducing brain chemical, serotonin. So, the fact that turkey has the makings of this natural sedative would make it seem logical that turkey is the culprit. Indeed, it was this belief that lead many people to begin taking tryptophan as a dietary supplement in the 1980s to treat insomnia (It was later banned because of an outbreak of eosinophilia-myalgia, a syndrome that causes muscle pain and even death).

But there’s more to why Thanksgiving is notorious for post-feast siestas.

In order to have any drowsiness effects, tryptophan needs to reach your brain directly to produce serotonin. But, there are many more amino acids in the foods we eat during Thanksgiving, not to mention a variety of others in the turkey itself, that are competing with tryptophan to enter the brain. So, when the tryptophan does reach the blood brain barrier, it’s vying for a spot amongst a variety of other amino acids, resulting in only a fraction of the tryptophan actually reaching the brain.

Add to this the fact that other foods, many of which are consumed on Thanksgiving, contain just as much, if not more, tryptophan than the turkey, and the turkey blame game is broken down even more.

Technically, the only way turkey can be the sole culprit would be if it’s eaten alone, without ingesting other amino acids from other foods, and on an empty stomach. Now, this is something to think about if insomnia hits you in the days following Thanksgiving, when there’s extra turkey still in the fridge, but unless all you eat on Turkey Day is, well, turkey, you can’t blame the bird.

So, what does cause the majority of Americans to steal away for an afternoon sleep session? It’s likely a combination of things.

One, you’re getting a significant dose of foods that are high in fat and carbs – notorious sleep inducers. According to the Calorie Control Council, this comes at an average of 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving Day – more than 2.5 times the calories that a moderately active, 145 lb person consumes on a daily basis. This barrage of calories causes your body to work overtime to process it, which results in fatigue.

Alcohol can also play a role in your Turkey Day alertness. When you add up the aperitif before dinner, the wine during, and the cocktail after, you’re bound to be a little, well, woozy.

And, finally, let’s not forget the time and energy that goes into planning dinner, making it and then cleaning it up. Depending on how many people are part of the gathering, that’s exhausting in and of itself!

So, this year, let’s give the bird a break and accept the real reasons why you’re snoozing after dinner.

Happy Thanksgiving!