Turkey and Tryptophan

Thanksgiving. 2005.

We had just finished the “post-gluttony” family football game. My team lost because YOU DON’T RUN A BUBBLE SCREEN ON THIRD AND 30! I’m not bitter.

 

Bubble Screen Bubble screens are meant to be run with fast players and when the defense is cheating up. NOT 3RD AND 30! Source: cougcenter.com

Anyway, after we had had discussed the finer points of play calling, we walked back in to the house it looked like a scene out of The Godfather (sans the blood). Bodies sprawled on the couches, faces stuffed into recliners, legs pretzeled on the floor, and a chins slumped into chests around the kitchen table. If I didn’t hear the chorus of snoring I would have thought they’d all been knocked off.

I looked at my cousin and he just said “It’s the turkey. The stuff is loaded with tryptophan.”

According to my cousin, there’ enough tryptophan in turkey to knock out a herd of elephants.

But is it true? Is the tryptophan in turkey responsible for the Thanksgiving post-gluttony nap or is there some other culprit?

What Is Tryptophan?

Tryptophan is one of the 22 amino acids and one of the nine essential amino acids. Amino acids are what proteins are made of. The essential amino acids are the amino acids that your body cannot make. That means in order to get an essential amino acid in your body, you have to eat it. In order to get tryptophan into your body, you have to consume it.

What does tryptophan do besides help make proteins for your immaculate, Michelle Obama-worthy biceps? Well it also produces serotonin. Serotonin is the “Don’t Stop Believing” of the drug world. It helps with depression, makes people fall in love, and generally makes people happy. The strange part is that 90% of the stuff ends up in your intestines (this all probably sounds like a tangent but it comes into play later).

Tryptophan also helps produce Niacin, a.k.a. vitamin B3. B3 helps prevent nausea, skin and mouth lesions, anemia, headaches, and tiredness. Essentially, if you don’t get this vitamin, you’ll look like a vampire who likes to sunbathe. Simply put, tryptophan is necessary for you to live.

 

Truth. Source: icanhascheeseburger.com Truth. Source: icanhascheeseburger.com

Tryptophan in Turkey

Here’s the thing, if tryptophan is a basic building block of the human body in terms of proteins, then wouldn’t we be eating more of it than just on Thanksgiving? The answer is a resounding “yes.”

You can get tryptophan in all sorts of food. In fact there is more tryptophan in pork, egg whites, and Atlantic cod than in Turkey. There’s more tryptophan in parmesan cheese. There’s more tryptophan sunflower seeds for crying out loud!

I played baseball in high school and college. We ate a ton of sunflower seeds. If tryptophan were as potent as I have heard, then we should have been falling asleep while stealing second. So what’s the deal?

The Answer

Here’s the short answer: the reason we fall asleep after Thanksgiving is not because of the turkey. It’s because you ate your weight in stuffing and cranberry sauce, six slices of Aunt Pam’s pie, and a dash of Uncle Bracken’s special sauce. Those carbs are really the culprits.

 

1379917_10201077650038283_570965285_n Uncle Bracken is the one on the right in case you weren't sure. Source: My family.

First, it takes energy for your body to digest those things. It takes energy to break the food down, then it takes energy to get that food where it needs to go, and then it takes energy to process those broken down food particles. Our bodies are like little factories and stuffing them with enough food for a sumo-wrestler is like making them work double-time (unfortunately you can’t count this as your daily dose of exercise).

Secondly, all those carbs demand the attention of your gut. When they get taken up, they tell your body to start producing insulin. Insulin in turn tells your muscles “Take up all the amino acids you can find! Except tryptophan. He’s a jerk” (insulin and tryptophan have a long family feud). While your gut is taking up all those carbs and your muscles are taking up those other amino acids, tryptophan is left all alone in the bloodstream. So he goes to the only friend he has left, the brain.

Remember how we talked about how 90% of tryptophan goes to the gut? Well, now it’s going to the brain. The brain starts turning it into serotonin and serotonin starts producing melatonin. Melatonin turns you into Rip Van Winkle.

It’s true. Tryptophan does help you fall asleep. However, the reason everyone falls asleep after Thanksgiving is not because turkey is loaded with the stuff. The reason is because the carbs that we eat during the meal make it easy for the tryptophan in the turkey to make its way to our brain to deliver the knockout punch.

So is it the tryptophan in the turkey that makes you fall asleep? Yes. Is it because turkey is loaded with tryptophan? No. Turkey has an average amount of the stuff.

So if you are looking to gain an edge in this year’s “post-gluttony” family football game, make sure everyone else carbo-loads and you go Atkins. They’ll be napping by the second quarter.

tagged with thanksgiving, turkey, chemistry, tryptophan