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Does L-tryptophan make you sleepy?

What do the experts say?

Importantly, we know that L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid that the body requires to synthesize proteins and specialized molecules such as the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin appears to play a significant role in sleep, emotional moods, pain control, inflammation, intestinal peristalsis, and other body functions. Serotonin is used to make melatonin, a hormone that helps to control your sleep and wake cycles. We also know that L-tryptophan has been used successfully for people with insomnia in many studies, including double-blind trials. The body can't make L-tryptophan, so we must get it from our diet. Foods with L-tryptophan include turkey, but it’s also found in other poultry, meat, cheese, yogurt, fish, and eggs.

On Thanksgiving, we Americans stuff ourselves with massive amounts of food, especially turkey. Not long after that and just before we get to leftovers, we are sleepy and want to take a nap. We are not surprised because we know turkey meat has L-tryptophan, which makes us sleepy. That’s not exactly correct. 

Turkey contains no more of the amino acid L-tryptophan than other kinds of poultry. In fact, turkey actually has slightly less L-tryptophan than chicken. While turkey is, indeed, one of the many major sources of L-tryptophan, it’s a myth that eating foods high in L-tryptophan boosts brain levels of L-tryptophan and therefore brain levels of serotonin and melatonin. Proteins like turkey, chicken, and fish, which are high in L-tryptophan, require assistance from foods high in carbohydrates to affect those beneficial hormone levels. Nutrition experts explain that carbohydrates in combination with the L-tryptophan, stored in the body from food previously eaten, will give the biggest boost of serotonin.

When you eat foods rich in L-tryptophan, as the food digests, amino acids - not just L-tryptophan - make their way into the bloodstream. This causes competition among the various amino acids to enter the brain. L-tryptophan, which is a bulky amino acid, is facilitated across the blood-brain barrier by carbohydrates. So have your turkey because it will increase your store of L-tryptophan in the body, but count on the carbohydrates to help give you a mood boost or restful sleep.

So if eating turkey isn't exactly the same as popping a sleeping pill, why the sudden grogginess as soon as our holiday feast is over? It’s largely because Thanksgiving is a time when we especially overeat, in an annual ritual of gluttony. When we overeat food, the digestion process takes a lot of energy. It is not just the turkey, it’s all that food we piled high on our plates.

Let’s consider, too, that Thanksgiving is time off from work and time with friends and family; we tend to be more relaxed (hopefully, no extra stress or family feuds). Add alcohol to the mix and presto, we’re sleepy.

On that note, don’t let the holidays get you down. Don’t let the shopping, the cooking, the decorating, the planning, the travel, the job, the kids, and the family, you know that “everything at once”, shortcut your need for restful sleep, an essential key to better health. Have yourself a merry nap.

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