Nutritionists Discuss Whether Or Not Turkey Really Makes You Sleepy

Nutritionists weigh in on the common belief that a turkey dinner will make you sleepy.

Thanksgiving turkey surrounded by candles.
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Nutritionists weigh in on the common belief that a turkey dinner will make you sleepy.

It has always been a common belief that turkey makes you sleepy. Many people like to take a nap upon enjoying a big Thanksgiving meal. But does turkey itself really make you feel drowsy or is it just a myth? Most wouldn’t expect to feel sleepy after eating a steak or any other kind of meat, so where did this idea come from? Nutritionist experts are weighing in on this topic that comes up every Thanksgiving.

According to Today, NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor Madelyn Fernstrom spoke about the myth and where it likely originated. She suspects it originated from a 1997 Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and George try to get a woman to fall asleep by feeding her a huge Thanksgiving dinner. They want her to take a nap so they’ll be free to play with her antique toy collection. They feed her turkey and mashed potatoes, finished off with plenty of red wine. Soon enough, the woman is asleep on the cough. Ever since, people have often joked about turkey’s connection to sleepiness.

Fernstrom says that the sleepiness that often comes after finishing a Thanksgiving feast is due in part simply to the large consumption of food. When the body is so focused on digesting all of the food, it’s priority is no longer providing energy. “That’s due to changes in metabolic activity during digestion. The body has signals to ‘slow down’ and digest the food as a priority,” Fernstrom said. “And there are changes in glucose and insulin balance that can impact the brain and the digestive system.”

People often contribute an amino acid in turkey called tryptophan to the post-dinner drowsiness. “Tryptophan can become serotonin — the brain chemical that calms, causes sleep, among other things — if the right enzymes are around to do so,” Fernstrom noted. However, this amino acid is actually present in a lot of different foods, not just turkey. In fact, it can be found in foods like cheese, egg whites, chicken and peanuts as well. The fastest way to get tryptophan to enter your bloodstream is by eating solely carbohydrates. For example, if someone was just to eat roles or mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner, they would likely feel more sleepy after.

If you’re trying to avoid the post-Thanksgiving dinner drop in energy, it is a good idea not to go overboard. By eating in moderation you’ll preserve energy and be less likely to want to take a nap after.