Dr. Lewis First, Chief of Pediatrics, Vermont Children’s Hospital

Sleepy at Thanksgiving? Don’t Blame the Turkey!

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Wednesday November 27, 2013

With Thanksgiving approaching, parents have been cooking up all kinds of questions about why everyone gets sleepy after a big Thanksgiving dinner.  Thankfully I can provide some information on healthy eating at Thanksgiving that will keep everyone awake.

Let’s start with that sleepiness concern. Turkey contains a nutritional building block, or amino acid, called tryptophan. When eaten alone, tryptophan goes to the brain and is converted into a substance that calms us down and makes us sleepy. Yet turkey contains many other building blocks or amino acids which counteract the sleep effect of tryptophan in the brain—so let’s not blame the turkey.  

What makes you sleepy if it’s not the turkey? It’s all the starchy and sugar-containing foods other than turkey, like breads, potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie and other desserts. These can cause fullness and with it a desire to just rest and digest all of that food. In addition, eating a big dinner causes increased blood flow to the stomach and less to the brain, which will also make you drowsy.  

What can you do to not get sleepy on Thanksgiving? Eat small, healthy meals during the day so you do not eat one big meal at the end of the day, which is easier said than done. Limit the amount of sugar and starch you eat – also easier said than done. A more realistic idea is to take a good walk after the meal which will also aid digestion and prevent drowsiness.As to the turkey itself, don’t forget to cook it at the right temperature and time based on weight. The temp must reach at least 165 degrees in the innermost part of the thigh and the center of stuffing to prevent spoilage. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for thawing and be prepared to cook right after thawing.  

Finally, when cooking, make sure your hands are clean at all times. Never place food that is ready to eat on an unwashed plate that just held raw meat or poultry. If food is being transported from one house to another, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold to prevent food from spoiling or transmitting bacteria that can cause indigestion and food poisoning.