You know what they say every Thanksgiving: that plateful of turkey tryptophan will surely send you to the couch for a snooze like no other. While I’m often up for a quick afternoon nap to recharge the batteries, I’m trying to remember a Thanksgiving when it was impossible to stay awake after eating.
I suppose, in all fairness, with all the pots and pans and dishes such a feast dirties, someone has to stay awake long enough to get the clean-up tasks underway—and I’m always one to pitch in. Plus, it’s a day of family and/or friends. There are catch-up conversations to be had, rousing games to be played, crisp autumn walks to go on.
Am I simply pushing through my tryptophan-induced snooze window? Do I have some odd immunity to its powers? Or, is the Thanksgiving tryptophan talk more of an old wives’ tale than a scientifically proven reality?
So, what is tryptophan? As MedlinePlus explains, tryptophan is an essential amino acid, “needed for normal growth in infants and for nitrogen balance in adults.” The distinction “essential amino acid” indicates your body isn’t capable of producing it; therefore, your only hope is getting it from your diet.
Is it important to seek it out as part of your diet, or can you hold out until Thanksgiving Day? It’s pretty important. MedlinePlus goes on to say the body uses this essential amino acid “to help make niacin, melatonin, and serotonin”—encouraging healthful sleep and keeping your mood on an even keel. These things are important every day of the year, not just the fourth Thursday of November.
Just like most nutrients out there, tryptophan doesn’t work its magic as a solo act. In order to help your body produce niacin, you also need sufficient amounts of B6, iron, and riboflavin. But the nutrient interdependence doesn’t stop there. Tryptophan and other essential amino acids play a key role in the body’s production of nonessential amino acids (i.e., arginine, tyrosine, and glutamine). Their combined efforts make all sorts of crucial processes possible in your body, like:
- Building and repairing muscle tissue
- Supplying your brain with the energy it needs
- Supporting neurotransmitter functions
How can you get enough tryptophan the other 364 days of the year? Eating tryptophan-rich foods is easier than you might think. You’ll find it in cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, and pasture-raised poultry (this is where the Thanksgiving turkey comes in). If you’ve chosen a vegetarian lifestyle, have no fear. If you are eating things like whole grain brown rice, spirulina, and chickpeas on a regular basis, tryptophan is already part of your diet.
On Dr. Axe’s website, Jillian Levy, CHHC, points out that the amount you need on a daily basis is determined by a variety of variables, including your age, activity level, weight, and intestinal health. As a general rule, according to research, most healthy adults should consume “around 3.5–6 milligrams of L-tryptophan (tryptophan) per kilogram of body weight through their diets most days.” Eating a variety of plant and animal protein should be sufficient; however, “animal foods are more concentrated and complete sources of all amino acids/proteins.”
Supplementing with tryptophan in pill form is also a possibility. Tryptophan supplements have been used in treating insomnia, mood disorders, chronic pain, and migraines. But save the synthetic isolate form for desperate times. A holistic approach works best, which means keeping the amino acids together in their whole-food complex forms. In any case, be sure to work with a knowledgeable healthcare provider to approach such serious conditions holistically. Popping a pill just does not cut it.
It seems that the tryptophan-induced nap being exclusive to Thanksgiving Day is, for the most part, an old wives’ tale. It’s absolutely a factor, but more likely caused by the quantity of food on your plate, as well as a relaxed atmosphere among people you love. It’s a day many of us are allowed to kick back and do whatever strikes our fancy—including napping.
So, dear readers, go ahead and get your tryptophan on this Thursday. But also make sure you keep up with it every other day of the year.
Happy Thanksgiving, my friends!
Image from iStock/Rawpixel.