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The Science Behind Your Thanksgiving Food Hangover

The Science Behind Your Thanksgiving Food Hangover

Oh, Thanksgiving. The holiday when you pile your plate high with a pound of turkey, stuffing, three types of potatoes, two slices of pumpkin pie and cranberries. It’s as much a feast as it is a feat to eat as much as we do on this holiday. Lucky for all of us the stomach is a pretty resilient organ. It can easily stretch to over a liter in volume and according to a pathology study people who ruptured their stomach (yes, ruptured) were able to stretch their stomach as much as 4 liters.

And then there is the post-Thanksgiving food hangover we have all experienced or at least heard of. You know it: 20 minutes after you finally find the courage to put your fork down you need to take a nap. Presumably to recover from all the turkey and pie you ate.

Most people believe these sleepy side effects are caused by the high levels of Tryptophan in turkey. Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps your body produce serotonin, which makes you feel relaxed. So it seems logical that eating (way too much) turkey can make you feel sleepy. But is this actually true?


The Turkey Myth 

While it is commonly said that turkey is especially high in tryptophan–and causes the drowsiness (“food hangover”) we experience after our thanksgiving feast–the reality is the amount of tryptophan in turkey is comparable to the tryptophan found in other meats like chicken and beef. In fact, eating turkey does not result in having higher amounts of tryptophan in your blood than other common foods. For example, cheese actually has more tryptophan than turkey and you don’t just pass out after eating a plate of cheese and crackers (or at least I hope not). If it’s not the turkey that makes you sleepy, then what is it?

Now before you say “my family,” here’s a little more science to help clear up the matter. The real reason we experience this post-thanksgiving feast effect is because of the high level of carbohydrates we consume. Yes, it’s not the turkey, it’s everything else on the table. A heavy, rich meal in carbohydrates increases the production of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, in the brain. Melatonin plays an important role in regulating biological rhythms like sleep. In fact, melatonin is sold as a sleep aid to help weary jet-lagged travelers adjust to new time zones.

There are other factors as well that contribute to a Thanksgiving food hangover. Eating food high in fat levels like pie and buttered-up mash potatoes slow the rate of digestion in the body and  give you the feeling of being bloated and tired. Add a little alcohol to the mix and you have the perfect formula for a long afternoon snooze.

The other contributing factor is a general social acceptance to overeating on this indulgent holiday. Experts say people often eat more than a full day’s worth of calories on Thanksgiving. As reported by the Calorie Count Counsel, the average person will eat 3,000 calories during the Thanksgiving feast and another 1,500 calories in snacks. Although these numbers have been contested by others, the moral of the story is we clearly over-eat on this day. Which adds to our uncomfortable food hangover.

So enjoy your thanksgiving food hangover and remember that it’s not the turkey that’s making you tired, it’s the carbs. Maybe only have one…or two big spoon fulls of mashed potatoes this year.