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Every year on Christmas Day it seems that even before the paper hats have been removed or the dinner plates cleared from the table your entire family is ready to fall asleep. A commonly held belief is that it’s the Turkey that we eat that makes us sleepy. But is there any science behind the claim? Does eating turkey make you sleep?
Turkey contains a chemical called tryptophan, an amino acid that acts as a natural sedative. Purified tryptophan is a mild sleep-inducing agent and this has probably led to the idea that foods containing heavy doses of the chemical cause drowsiness.
It is true that a dose of tryptophan can make you feel sleepy but only when taken on an empty stomach, something very unlikely to happen with on Christmas Day. And the truth is that tryptophan is present in small doses in many foods we eat, indeed beef and soybeans have higher concentrations of tryptophan than turkey does.
In order for tryptophan to act as an effective sedative it has to be the only amino acid present going to its particular brain receptor. Turkey contains other amino acids aside from tryptophan. These are taken to the brain on the same active transport system and compete for the same receptors, effectively crowding out the tryptophan preventing it from having a sedative effect.
So, even if on Christmas Day you only ate the turkey and none of the trimmings, you still wouldn’t get enough tryptophan to make you drowsy.
The more scientifically minded point to the link between tryptophan and serotonin production by the body. Serotonin is a chemical that the body produces that makes you happy and confident. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin which itself is a precursor to melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that makes you feel sleepy. The logic goes that if you consume enough tryptophan it will eventually boost your body’s production of melatonin. This argument falls down when you realize how much pure tryptophan is needed and that it would all need to go to the brain when, in fact, the majority of melatonin is produced and broken down in the intestine.
So what is the cause of that overwhelming desire to sleep straight after Christmas dinner? Simple – the vast amount food you’ve eaten causes blood to be diverted away from the brain towards the stomach. This is so that the body can digest all of the turkey, sausages, stuffing, vegetables and Christmas pudding you’ve eaten.
1. The Guardian. 21 December 2007. Website:
2. Scientific American. 23 November 2001. Website:
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