- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

“For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept.” — Dylan Thomas, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

Feeling sleepy after a full turkey dinner, for many families, is as familiar during the holidays as watching the silver-and-blue-clad Dallas Cowboys romping around the gridiron Thanksgiving Day.

Nutrition experts are torn as to the culprit. The sleepiness could be pinned on eating too much for our own good. Others blame tryptophan, a protein found in turkey.

Tracy Gensler, a registered dietitian in Chevy Chase, says tryptophan doesn’t deserve nearly the blame it gets for making us sleepy.

The average Thanksgiving Day meal tends to run high in carbohydrates, which cause the body’s blood sugars to dramatically increase and then drop, she says. That tends to make us feel drowsy, which can happen anytime we overindulge.

“The body wants to focus its efforts on digestion,” Ms. Gensler says. “Drowsiness occurs after any big meal, regardless of the meal components. Digestion of any large meal, whether it’s a high-protein, a high-fat or a high-carbohydrate meal, causes the familiar after-meal drowsiness.”

The turkey portion of a holiday meal contains plenty of protein, but the rest of the day’s menu features so many carbohydrates that they overshadow protein’s impact.

“Think about all the other dishes — mashed potatoes, rolls, desserts, stuffing,” she says. “It’s a lot of calories for your body to work on at one time, … but it’s the sheer quantity of food that induces post-meal sleepiness, rather than the carbohydrate-rich meal.”

Ms. Gensler says tryptophan releases serotonin in the brain, but a fairly large dose is required to make that happen. Its impact is greatest on an empty stomach.

Tryptophan cannot be made in the body, so the food we eat must supply it. Tryptophan aids in the production of the B-vitamin niacin, which, in turn, helps our bodies produce serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which, among other roles, works as an inhibiting agent in the body, decreasing appetite, sexual arousal and pain perception.

“[Tryptophan is] not something you want to go get more of and use it for serotonin release,” she says.

Some researchers contend that tryptophan creates a sense of calm within us. Dr. John W. Crayton, professor of psychiatry at Loyola University’s Stritch Medical School in Maywood, Ill., found tryptophan has an impact on the chemistry of our brains and on our moods. His work showed the protein plays a role in mental activity, including sleep and


A supplement version of the protein, called L-tryptophan, emerged in the 1980s as a

possible aid for insomnia, headaches and stress. The supplements were yanked in 1990 when a contaminated strain of the pills was tied to nearly 1,500 cases of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome, a rare and sometimes deadly blood condition.

Susan Moores, a St. Paul, Minn.-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, agrees with those who say tryptophan leaves turkey eaters feeling sluggish.

“It has a calming effect or even a sleepy effect for some,” Ms. Moores says.

The meal’s other components also feed into a sense of sleepiness.

“People are eating a pretty large meal. The blood tends to go to your stomach to help digest it,” she says. Combine that with the lack of exercise inherent in the holiday — we can partially thank television — and it’s a recipe for sedation.

Another sleep-inducing factor is any alcohol consumed with the meal. Alcohol is a sedative.

Ms. Moores says only a few foods are rich in tryptophan. Chicken and some fish, such as halibut, mackerel and coho salmon, all have relatively high amounts of the protein.

Denise Feeley, clinical research coordinator at MedStar Research Institute, says the tryptophan in turkey does play a role in our post-meal drowsiness. But diners will have to do more than nibble to get that effect. It takes a healthy portion of turkey — either white or dark meat — to feel its impact, says Ms. Feeley, whose institute is tied to the Washington Hospital Center.

She does agree that the rest of the Thanksgiving Day menu plays a role in inducing drowsiness.

Edee Hogan, a District-based registered dietitian, says tryptophan’s impact can be diminished by eating other proteins during the big meal.

“Many people have cream of mushroom soup; the milk with that would be a protein,” Ms. Hogan says, adding that cheese also offers proteins. Stuffing recipes that call for nuts add another protein.

If you eat turkey on an empty stomach, “you don’t have the other [proteins] vying for attention to get into your bloodstream,” she says. With two or more proteins in a meal, the tryptophan would get to the brain more slowly.

Beyond the turkey tryptophan debate, the Thanksgiving meal does contain some nutritional goodies, should we be wise enough to steer clear of fatty stuffing and desserts.

Ms. Moores points to pumpkin and winter squash as two nutritious side dishes. Both contain large amounts of beta carotene, as well as vitamin C, potassium and fiber. Sweet potatoes also can be counted on for vitamin A, beta carotene and folic acid, among other nutrients.

And turkey itself, she says, packs protein without as much fat as other meats.

Should today’s revelers want to avoid the post-dinner blahs, Ms. Moores suggests starting the day with some exercise to get the body prepared for the food ahead.

“Get out there; get the blood moving. Get yourself energized for the day, which is a good practice anytime,” she says.

It helps, too, if we pace our eating throughout the day, she adds, instead of starving ourselves until the big meal.

Ms. Gensler says staying upright will help stave off a post-meal nap.

“The best thing they can do is eat, do the dishes and go for a walk to avoid that depleted feeling,” Ms. Gensler says.

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