Unveiling a Thanksgiving Fallacy

Picture taken from www.foodandwine.com

Picture taken from www.foodandwine.com

It’s holiday season, and you know what that means — decorations and excessive amounts of food. A common phenomenon associated with this past weekend’s Thanksgiving celebration is the inevitable food coma waiting to settle in after you’ve just about eaten your own body weight in mashed potatoes, turkey coated in gravy, stuffing, peas, and cranberry sauce. Many consider the binge-consumption of turkey as the mechanism for why we all experience fatigue after the traditional November feast. The reason for the correlation is due to a compound found in turkey called tryptophan. This amino acid has been found to “achieve its effects by way of serotonin, one of the key brain chemicals involved in regulating mood”, says PsychologyToday.com. Other research has indicated that serotonin is “the promotion of slow-wave sleep in non-human mammals…and it may do the same for humans” and is even a “precursor” for melatonin. If all of the facts listed above sounds like perfect evidence to verify the thanksgiving fallacy, the truth is might be surprising to you.

Plain and simply, turkey has absolutely NOTHING to do the impending sentiment of lethargy. In fact, according to Web MD, turkey has the same amount of tryptophan as any other kind of poultry. Despite its presence within the bird, nutritionists believe that a larger supply of the amino acid remains within carbohydrates, such as the cornbread and mashed potatoes eaten at a thanksgiving dinner.

sleepy thanksgiving

Another underlying variable is fat; decent amounts of fat in meals has been known to cause drowsiness. In fact, a study at Penn State University revealed that the consumption of fatty foods does induce sleepiness. Thirty-one “healthy, non-obese participants” spent four nights in a sleep lab in order to help scientists document the relationship between fatty foods and sleeping patterns. As one could’ve guessed, those who ate more fat fell asleep more quickly during the day than those who ate only carbs. And let’s not forget the alcohol, either! Whether it’s a fine wine or a heavy glass of beer, a couple servings can cause drowsiness after a while.

So, what really happens behind the scenes that causes the “postprandial somnolence”? The answer is quite simple, actually. Eating big portions of food at a time makes you tired. Researchers have discovered that a high-carb, high-fat, and high-sugary meal “triggers a neural response as soon as they hit the small intestine”, according to Scientific American and Huffington Post. Once the neural response has been activated, the brain tells our bodies to slow down and try to digest the food rather than shoveling more of Grandma’s stuffing down your throat. Following the neural response, a collection of brain cells called orexin are found in the hypothalamus region of the brain. Due to its sensitivity to glucose levels, after a meal like Thanksgiving, the surgence of sugar, carbs, and fat coursing through your body triggers the production of orexin, causing the brain to dictate to your body it’s time to take a nap. That isn’t all, however. While the orexin does most of the sedative work, it is the insulin that ultimately delivers the knockout punch.

Unlike the orexin, the amount of insulin released into the brain has a positive relationship the amount of food eaten, not the amount glucose ingested. Similar to tryptophan, the presence of insulin automatically increases the amount of seretonin and melatonin released during digestion, which in turn increases the amount of fatigue felt. The graph on the left represents an experiment conducted by Trond Jenssen and Anders Hartmann from www.nature.com. The results indicated that approximately 10-15 minutes after eating a glucose heavy meal, the glucose level increases while the level of insulin spikes significantly. After 30 minutes, the decreasing levels of insulin experiences a second wind as it and glucose exponentially increases for an hour and a half more.

Sometimes hunger combined with a plethora of delicious food on the table can force us to eat a little more quickly than we normally do — it’s only human! If you despise falling susceptible to the amino acids working its course through your body after your Thanksgiving meal, you have a couple of options. First, try to control your eating and sleeping patterns. Get a good night’s sleep before turkey day and try to eat something throughout the day, it’ll behoove you more than you think. Another possible option is to try to eat later in the evening so the sleepiness will hit you just before bedtime. As the Christmas season is falling upon us, keep these things in mind once you find yourself indulging in a plate of yuletide deliciousness.


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4 thoughts on “Unveiling a Thanksgiving Fallacy


  2. Margaret Kreienberg

    Thank you for blogging about this topic! I now know why my entire family passes out on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner each year. Research conducted by the Loyola University Health System suggests that a mass amount of food in general can be the leading cause for these “food comas.” The mix of excessive amounts of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pie all lead into postprandial somnolence. The dietitian who supervised the research also makes a good claim against tryptophan. Tryptophan is also found in yogurt, eggs, fish, cheese and other meats. If tryptophan was really the cause then people would probably experience postprandial somnolence after nearly every meal!

  3. Sam Mark Harman

    I really enjoyed reading the post. Like most families, mine always assumed that tryptophan was the cause for the food coma that goes hand in hand with a Thanksgiving feast. It was interesting to read that there are many factors that lead to this food coma. Very well done!!

  4. Erin Ann Alessandroni

    Philip, this is a very relevant, helpful blog post idea! I am glad that I now have a term for the feeling which I too often bring upon myself after overeating, “postprandial somnolence”. This terrible feeling is self inflicted and completely preventable, yet a majority of American’s experience it each holiday season. Is it possible to literally eat so much you explode and die? Highly unlikely, although one may sometimes feel this potential. I questioned whether there are serious health risks to entering into one of these so called “food comas”. An article on Phase IV explains research that shows that the “endothelial cells lining blood vessels are temporarily weakened after a very large meal”. This makes blood vessels prone to rupture, “creating problems such as strokes and aneurisms”. Additionally, cholesterol and triglyceride levels rise, causing fatty plaques to build up in arteries and may lead to atherosclerosis (narrowing of blood vessels). This condition could lead to heart attack or stroke. These symptoms and health risks associated with over eating seem very severe for how prevalent binging on food is in our society. Do I believe over eating once a year will lead to death? Absolutely not. These facts, however, will influence my future choice to stop eating when I feel full.

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