ST. GEORGE — It’s not the turkey’s fault. 

A flock of four turkeys in a row with their tail fathers fully spread. Stock image | Photo by Images Plus

Depending on one’s appetite or how many relatives and friends brought over more food for your Thanksgiving feast, there are usually many more items on the plate than Benjamin Franklin’s favorite bird. 

Yet it’s always the turkey and its connection to that amino acid called L-tryptophan that gets the blame for that time-honored tradition of Thanksgiving – that terrible feeling after dinner when someone wants to collapse onto a couch or bed with a stomach full of food and every cell in the body saying one word: Sleep.

But several medical studies say it’s not just the turkey’s fault. It’s not even tryptophan that deserves all the blame.

Medical experts say that sleepy feeling is caused by the net amount of all the tryptophan and carbohydrates on your plate – not just the turkey and not just the tryptophan.

But a local doctor who is one of the leading experts in Southern Utah on sleep puts food off the hook completely. Dr. Kirk Watkins, who heads the Intermountain Sleep Center at St. George Regional Medical Center, said the real turkey in the room is that people just aren’t getting enough sleep … period.

“The main reason for sleepiness in America is because we’re getting less and less sleep,” Watkins said. “If you’re getting the right amount of sleep, you don’t need to sleep in the daytime.”

At the same time, the saying goes you are what you eat. But according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it isn’t what you eat at the Thanksgiving table as much as how much you eat. 

A plate full of food for Thanksgiving, St. George Utah, November 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

It’s the culmination of nutrients on the Thanksgiving plate that provokes the run to the couch or bed from the table, not just one item. It’s similar to how a cup of water won’t fill a bucket, but many cups of water will.  

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture, the typical amount of turkey eaten on turkey day has 370 milligrams of tryptophan. Studies say it typically takes 500 mg to cause drowsiness. Turkey alone doesn’t hit that number, but tryptophan in the other foods on the plate will add up. 

But a person doesn’t just sit down and eat tryptophan on Thanksgiving. 

Turkey and other foods aren’t 100% tryptophan. When a person eats something with it, the other fats, proteins or amino acids in the food can dilute its effects, according to the NIH. Tryptophan itself doesn’t actually induce sleep, but it ultimately is converted in the body into serotonin and melatonin, which does. Other nutrients in the food can slow down or hinder that process. 

Also, turkey isn’t the tryptophan champ when it comes to other meats that might be on the Thanksgiving menu.  

On a plate of protein with turkey, ham, beef, chicken and whitefish, turkey sits in the middle of the pack as far as the amount of tryptophan, according to the USDA. That ham has more than twice the tryptophan as the turkey.

If anything deserves turkey’s tryptophan reputation, it’s that pizza delivery. The cheese alone on the typical pizza has three times the tryptophan as turkey. 

Graphic showing the amount of tryptophan and carbohydrates in foods on the typical Thanksgiving plate | Graphic by Chris Reed, photos by iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News | Click to enlarge

On top of that, a recent study says ultimately, it isn’t a high amount of tryptophan in a meal that causes the post-big-meal nod-off but a combination of that with a high amount of carbohydrates. Foods high in both are ultimately the sleep inducers. On the Thanksgiving plate, that’s more likely to be the dinner roll, the mashed potatoes and the stuffing than the turkey. Birds, beef and other meats have next-to-no carbohydrates to speak of.

That process where tryptophan becomes serotonin and melatonin? The study suggests carbs boost it.   

Those who partake in a vegetarian Thanksgiving sans the turkey, ham or fish aren’t off the hook. In fact, they may get more of that sleepy feeling than carnivores. 

A popular tofu turkey roast brand has more of the sleep-inducing agents than regular turkey. A Tofurky roast dinner has 268 mg of tryptophan and 16 grams of carbohydrates. A cup of soybeans.

Then there’s what you drink with the meal. 

If wine is kosher for Thanksgiving, tryptophan and carbs aren’t a factor but a study says alcohol not only has other sleep-inducing ingrediants that are well-known beyond the comical drunks in movies but can also cause a less fitful sleep and exacerbate sleep apnea. 

Ultimately, the strategy by Jerry and George in a well-known episode of “Seinfeld” to have Jerry’s date fall asleep by having turkey and wine would work, but it would have worked with just the wine and without the turkey.

A soda, if not diet, doesn’t have tryptophan, according to the USDA but will do a lot to build up the carbohydrate bucket. 

Stock photo | Photo by Drazen Zigic/iStock Getty Images Plus, St. George News

And while a glass of milk does a body good, that one glass has more sleep inducers than anything on the plate with 195 mg of tryptophan and 23 grams of carbs. Like a serving of turkey, one glass of milk alone won’t bridge the tryptophan and carbs deficit, but everything else on the menu combined will. 

Speaking of deficits, St. George Regional Hospital’s Watkins said sleep deficits are ultimately the reason for a lack of alertness whether it is Thanksgiving or not. And he said 7.5 hours isn’t necessarily the magic number for everyone when it comes to sleep. It depends on the person.

“I have patients that only need 5.5 hours of sleep and they’re fine,” said Watkins, who added the right balance of sleep should ultimately be more on people’s minds as far as fatigue than what they eat at Thanksgiving,

“There are real-world consequences to sleep debt,” Watkins said. “The only way to pay it back is to get more sleep.”

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