Thanksgiving Meal Mystery: What Actually Causes You To Feel Sleepy?

By Alyse Borkan  |  Nov 24, 2015
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Thanksgiving: the nappiest time of the year. If you’re anything like us, you are most likely going to pile a heaping helping of food on your plate, empty it into your stomach, and then fall fast asleep (hopefully, until Christmas). Though we’re no stranger to the food coma, the desire to snooze is stronger than ever on Thanksgiving eve. Before you blame the turkey, find out what is really knocking you out at night.

The second you take your first bite, the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system increases and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system decreases. You’re probably saying, wait, what? But we can explain. The sympathetic nervous system provides our fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic system gets your organs ready for digestion. Basically, your body wants you to stay still in order to sort out the contents of your stomach, which is no easy feat. You consume roughly 5 times the amount of food you usually would in a typical meal. Frightening, but true. Because your body is trying to process those few extra pieces of pie, it sends blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow means reduced energy. 

Once you start digesting the food, there’s a rush of glucose into your bloodstream. Your body creates insulin to help the body’s cells absorb the glucose. The insulin works by affecting the uptake of amino acids in the body except for one: the infamous tryptophan. The concentration of tryptophan increases relative to other amino acids. Turns out that in the brain, tryptophan is converted to serotonin, which is converted to melatonin, and ultimately, results in sleepiness.

There are actually many foods that contain an even greater amount of tryptophan, some of which you probably eat every day. Cheese, anyone? It would take quite a bit of turkey, eaten on an empty stomach, to actually make you even somewhat sleepy. So if it’s not turkey, what makes us want to instantly pass out post-meal? It’s all the carbohydrates: stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, roasted potatoes (we could go on forever).

Thanksgiving survival tip: wear sweatpants so you can go straight from the dinner table to your bed.

Image credit: Dave/Creative Commons

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