The truth about tryptophan

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Before sitting down to that big turkey dinner this Thursday, we sat down with Susan Kennedy, associate professor of psychology (one of her research interests is psychopharmacology) and quizzed her on the science behind tryptophan. Does eating turkey really make you sleepy?

First of all, Kennedy assures us that tryptophan DOES occur in turkey. It’s an amino acid that enters serotonergic neurons in the brain and is converted into serotonin by a series of enzymatic processes in the cell. Serotonin, that well-known contributor to happiness, also affects appetite and – you guessed it – sleep.

Susan Kennedy, associate professor of psychology

So, the short answer is, yes, it makes you sleepy. But Kennedy cautions that tryptophan is found in lots of food we eat – not just turkey, but in chicken, eggs, cheese and more. And she suspects that while the tryptophan in turkey may contribute to that falling-asleep-while-watching-football-on-the-big-screen syndrome, the bigger culprit is all those delightful carbs that we ingest. Stuffing, mashed potatoes, pie, bread and rolls abound on most Thanksgiving tables, and they all contain a healthy dose of carbohydrates.

Bottom line here – don’t just blame the turkey. A lot of food traditionally found on Thanksgiving menus can induce sleep. Just be sure you tell that to Uncle Larry before you fall asleep during one of his jokes.

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