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The Turkey-Tryptophan-Sleep Connection

Many of you have experienced eating your Thanksgiving dinner and promptly snoozing on the couch as a football game or holiday special drones on in the background on the TV. Everyone explains that it’s the turkey—but specifically the tryptophan in the turkey.

In this post, you’ll learn what tryptophan is, foods that contain it, why it makes you sleepy at Thanksgiving, and how you can fight off the need for that post-Thanksgiving dinner snooze—that is, unless you look forward to that part of Thanksgiving.


Weightlossforall explains that Tryptophan is an important amino acid in our diet that helps our body create the protein we need for growth and strength. While indeed, you do find tryptophan in turkey, a lot of other protein-rich foods contain it. Healthaliciousness lists the following foods as relatively high in tryptophan: seeds and nuts, soybeans, cheese, many other red meats, pork, chicken, fish, shellfish, oat bran (uncooked), beans, and eggs.


Tryptophan indeed can make you sleepy, no matter what source you get it from. In fact, a tofurkey, given that it’s made from tofu (soybean), is as likely to put you into a post-meal stupor as the bird that inspired its creation. The reason why has more to do with how tryptophan reacts with other foods in your body than it does the source of the tryptophan.

From Sleep.org, you learn that your body converts tryptophan into niacin, a B vitamin. In turn, niacin is necessary for the creation of serotonin. You’ve probably heard of people taking melatonin to get better sleep, right? Well serotonin is a neurotransmitter that impacts your levels of melatonin.

As Sleep.org goes on to explain, the reason turkey has received such a strong reputation as a sleep-inducer comes from the fact that tryptophan only gets to the brain to impact serotonin levels as niacin when your body releases insulin. Guess what causes that big rush of insulin? Carbohydrates and sugar. So piling on the mashed potatoes and stuffing, grabbing an extra roll, and following it up with a big slice of pumpkin pie gives that tryptophan an edge it didn’t have from just eating turkey alone.


Assuming you don’t want to snooze after your holiday turkey dinner, all you have to do is reduce the amount of carbohydrates you consume. But then again, Thanksgiving does only happen once a year, and it is kind of nice to have a fire roaring in the background, the hum of family conversations in the house, and the opportunity to take a short nap on a warm and comfy couch.


The next day, though, when you have all that leftover turkey and you don’t want another early evening nap, consider using the leftover turkey in my recipe for Left Over Turkey Salad with Pomegranate and Dairy-Free Ranch. It’s got a bright, sweet taste from the pomegranate seeds and dried cranberries, but has a nice crunch from red bell peppers and crisp Romaine Lettuce. Plus, it’s fairly low in carbohydrates! If you want to improve your sleep and health, read about it in my new blog post!

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

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