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Saturday, December 4, 2021

True or False

I get sleepy just thinking about my family’s Thanksgiving feast, and I know I’m not alone. There seems to be a general consensus that turkey especially causes drowsiness. To think, after all these years, my sleepiness was a direct result of the toothy, almost excruciatingly smiley conversations with great Auntie Martha is now but a debunked theory.

According to the TLC Cooking website, turkey contains the amino acid tryptophan, an essential component that helps the body produce both the B-vitamin niacin and serotonin — the key chemical activated during sleep. Given tryptophan is so important to our bodies, we cannot manufacture it ourselves. Therefore, the body has to garner tryptophan and other amino acids from food nutrients, kind of like how Uncle Pete grabs all the biscuits before everyone else. This chemical process led many scientists to conclude that eating more turkey causes the body to produce more serotonin, and in turn, feel more inclined to take a nap.

However, the amount of tryptophan in turkey is similar to that found in other meats, making it just as likely to put you to sleep as chicken or beef, for example.

It isn’t a surprise that the 1980s saw an increase in the purchasing of tryptophan dietary supplements. Consumers incorrectly believed it would treat insomnia — and for the most part, it was a reasonably effective sleeping aid. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of tryptophan supplements in the early 1990s due to an outbreak of eosinophilia-myalgia, a muscle pain and death-inducing syndrome, found in contaminated supplement bottles.

Even when used on healthy people, though, tryptophan has shown mixed results with respect to sleep enabling characteristics. Perhaps this is because nutritionists argue that the amino acid works best on an empty stomach. In a Thanksgiving dinner situation, turkey must co-mingle with other foods and amino acids the body is trying to uptake. And just like trying to get to the biscuits before Uncle Pete, tryptophan loses the battle to its other counterparts.

CHELSEA MEHRA can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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