Sleeping through the Thanksgiving games? A neuroscientist busts the myth that turkey makes you sleepy

Renee Miller is an award-winning fantasy football writer…who also happens to be a neuroscientist. Her weekly survivor picks and “Brain Games” fantasy columns are insightful, unique must-reads. In honor of Thanksgiving, she’s diving into “your brain on turkey” — a slight diversion from fantasy and betting, but related, nonetheless. Enjoy!

It’s probably natural that being a neuroscientist, I’m pretty into trivia. A devoted Jeopardy watcher since high school, I’ve also taken up Who Wants to be a Millionaire, The Chase, and The Wall over the years. Recently someone on The Wall missed a question about the old anti-drug campaign: “This is your brain (shows unbroken egg) …This is your brain on drugs (shows egg frying in pan).” She guessed that the food item in the ad was a melting ice cream cone instead of the sizzling egg.

Around here we’re more interested in understanding your brain on fantasy football – although if Tony Pollard doesn’t score 47 fantasy points this week, the brain on drugs is a definite possibility. With Thanksgiving celebrations happening around America, I thought it would be fun to examine the brain on turkey instead.

You may already know that it’s a myth that turkey makes you tired. There was a logical root to the story, but it isn’t borne out experimentally. Turkey, like all sources of protein (including plant), contains the amino acid tryptophan. It doesn’t contain an especially high amount of tryptophan relative to other proteins, so the focus on turkey as the culprit for Thanksgiving sleepiness is already off to a rocky start. The myth continues by acknowledging that tryptophan is the precursor to the neuromodulator, serotonin. Serotonin is best known for its putative role in mood disorders like Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) – this story is also not as simple as it is often made out to be – and as a satiety factor.

Serotonin is released when our bodies sense the ingestion of nutritious food. From humans to the simplest invertebrates, serotonin release inhibits further feeding. Again, this is the case whether you fill up on salad or cheeseburgers and certainly isn’t specific to turkey or Thanksgiving. The sheer volume of calories consumed by many Americans on Thanksgiving is enough to produce that over-full feeling, so don’t blame the turkey alone!

Getting back to the sleepy claims, serotonin is part of a group of neuromodulators like dopamine and norepinephrine that are highly utilized when we’re awake, but levels drop dramatically when we’re drifting off to sleep. So even if our holiday meal was leading our brains to produce more serotonin, it might help keep us awake and alert.

There is one part of the brain, however, that can turn serotonin into melatonin, the sleep-promoting hormone made by our pineal gland. This facet is a big component of the turkey makes you sleepy myth. Melatonin is produced on a circadian rhythm, with production peaking about 3-4 hours before we go to sleep. BTW, any sleep specialist will tell you that for over-the-counter melatonin to be effective, you need to take it a few hours before your intended bedtime. The problem with this claim is that peak levels of melatonin in healthy individuals are pretty constant, meaning that one big meal isn’t going to push us into melatonin overload and make it impossible to keep our eyes open. Unlike the relationship between tryptophan and serotonin, levels of the precursor serotonin are not a limiting factor in melatonin production.

Science has a few possibilities for what might be driving the food coma – higher than normal carbohydrate load, many carbs in the form of simple sugars leading to an insulin surge followed by a sugar crash, poor prior sleep due to travel or unfamiliar housing, consumption of alcohol and the blood being diverted more to our digestive tracts (and the release of some digestive hormones) are logical suspects.

Strategies to avoid the slump include portion control (yeah, right), delaying dessert an hour or two, and avoiding the post-meal retreat to the couch. Helping with dishes, playing with the kids, or taking a walk will provide more energy and a faster recovery from the big meal than collapsing into an easy chair. Let me assure you, you can watch the Dallas game standing up and milling around after dinner, and if you do, you’ll be more likely to stay awake when you finally sit down to watch the Niners and Seahawks.

As scientists strive to learn more about how our diet affects brain health and disease, the news about commonly eaten Thanksgiving foods is mostly positive. Turkey provides a lean source of protein, including tryptophan, and another important neurotransmitter precursor, choline. Sweet potatoes, yams and pumpkin offer us Vitamin A, manganese, potassium and copper while being high in fiber which counteracts the sugar high and subsequent crash (if you don’t ruin them with marshmallows or something equally sweet).  Cranberries are high in antioxidants, as are apples and other colorful berries used in pies. Apples also promote good cardiovascular health, limiting risk for stroke.

Experts now say that we should be eating like it’s Thanksgiving a lot more often. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t feel the need to overindulge every year. Of course, the things I’m most likely to want seconds of – stuffing and any other kind of gravy vehicle – don’t make the healthy list. So, I tell myself, you know what else is good for your brain’s health? Practicing delayed gratification and self-control; I’m the chef, so I’ll have access to the leftovers for days.

The final benefit you can take to the dinner table? Your Athletic subscription not only gives you the advice you need to get a critical Week 12 win, but it just gave you something to talk about with the one Thanksgiving guest who isn’t a fantasy football nut. Every family has one, bless them. Enjoy the big day and next week I’ll be back to tackling tough fantasy decisions instead of turkey troubles.

(Top photo: Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

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