What happens to your body when you eat Thanksgiving food

Examining the science behind Thanksgiving's (and other holiday's) sleep-inducing meals.

It’s the most fattening time of the year!


Thanksgiving is over and Christmas is right around the corner. Quick to follow are Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the Winter Solstice.


That’s a lot of holidays to celebrate.


With those holidays comes the extensive menu. Each one has its special dish, whether it’s Thanksgiving turkey, Hanukkah latkes, or the Winter Solstice Dongzhi. There’s no limit to what can be made. In the same vein, however, there’s no limit to what can be eaten (unless you have allergies but let’s pretend otherwise).


You may tell yourself “I’m going to eat right this year” only to throw that plan out the door as soon as Cheryl from accounting brings in homemade sugar cookies, days before the big feast. Then the next two months are ruined because you couldn’t help yourself. Come that special Thursday, you were already dead set on demolishing every inch of that bird. You stuff stuffing, cram cranberry sauce, and pile in the pie. At the end of the night, you find it hard to stay awake.


What is that feeling exactly, that sluggishness?


Postprandial somnolence is a food coma of sorts. It’s that phenomena of lethargy that you experience after a large meal. A feeling like this can come from your everyday lunch or dinner but it’s most noticeable around this time of year.


Food comas -- like all body processes -- happen in stages.


First, when food enters the stomach area, the parasympathetic nervous system ups the work of the sympathetic nervous system. This automatic tone shift in favor of the parasympathetic is what arouses the sloth-like attitude.


Next, insulin plays its role. Foods with a high glycemic index (white bread, packaged mac and cheese, pretzels, melons, etc) have an easier time in digestion than foods with lower indexes (pasta, oatmeal, corn, barley, etc). High insulin creates the skeletal muscles’ want of branched amino acids valine, leucine, and isoleucine.


When those three leave the bloodstream, tryptophan becomes the main amino acid in the stream. Tryptophan may sound familiar as it is the most believed component in turkey that makes you tired (it’s not; I’ll get to that later). The amino acid tryptophan is then turned into serotonin which, in itself, is converted to melatonin. Both result in sleepiness if they are prevalent in the brain.


And that’s why you get tired when you eat a large meal. But what’s so special about tryptophan? Why is it commonly thought to cause the drowsiness that you feel when you eat too much turkey?


Turkey and tryptophan have a complicated relationship. For years, tryptophan has been the blame for your sluggishness after a Thanksgiving meal. As you’ve read, it does play a role in the production but it’s not the main character. In fact, it’s an essential amino acid because of its usefulness in the human body (mainly because amino acids are segments of a whole in protein biosynthesis and you need proteins to live). Turkey’s tryptophan content has been found to be comparable to that of chicken, beef and the other meats.


The turkey/tryptophan theory has been refuted over the past few years and studied even longer. Why is it still the biggest scapegoat of Thanksgiving? Tryptophan, when mixed with other elements from separate foods, can be very powerful. The sugars from the breads, potatoes, and pies direct your body processes to break down the sugar. Now you’re left without protection from that tryptophan and resulting serotonin and melatonin.


Turkey is the least of your worries though; there are worse, more common foods you can ingest with higher levels of tryptophan.


Where does that leave your overeating during the holiday season?


Don’t worry one bit. Overeating is a natural, gluttonous joy everyone should experience a few times a year. Plus, it’s pretty hard to gain weight off of the meal seeing as how the typical holiday meal has 3,000 calories (men need 2,600 per day to live and women need 2,000). You’d need 1,500 on top of the initial 3,000 to even move the needle. Cosmopolitan cites Keri Gans, MS, as saying that the key is to not indulge in overeating all holiday season; just stick to the actual day itself.


Enjoy your holiday festivities. You deserve it.


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