Tryptophan & Turkey—A Working Mom’s Elixir?


As I imagine my upcoming Thanksgiving, I envision a modern-day Norman Rockwell scene—generations of adults gathered around the table with their heads clustered in conversation or tossed back in laughter.  At the children’s table, kids are engaged in animated arguments about Minecraft or practicing a cups routine. Soon after dinner, the kids will begin to yawn and curl up with blankets for the night, and I will cherish the chance to have a real conversation that isn’t interrupted by someone yelling “Mom!” Tryptophan— you are a working mother’s elixir.

But as the Thanksgiving holiday gets closer, I begin to wonder—does eating the big turkey dinner really make you sleepy and if so, is tryptophan the cause?

Tryptophan, or L-tryptophan to be exact, is an essential amino acid that the body needs, but can’t make itself. The body needs tryptophan to make serotonin; serotonin is used to make melatonin, and melatonin is a hormone that helps the body control when it sleeps and when it wakes. Tryptophan is in turkey, but it is also available in similar levels in chicken, cheese, fish, eggs, and milk.  So, while turkey is a good source of tryptophan, it is no more likely to send my children to an early sleep on Thanksgiving than any other go-to food in a working mom’s arsenal: yogurt, cheese, smoothies— and I am going to be really truthful here—chicken fingers, and fish sticks.

But we have all experienced the sleepiness that follows a Thanksgiving meal, so if tryptophan isn’t the cause, then what is?  It turns out that when foods rich in tryptophan are followed by foods rich in carbohydrates, the combination of the two foods will give you a serotonin boost that will summon sleep. Carbohydrates can be found in potatoes, bread, pasta, vegetables, and pies, among other foods. Now I understand why the stories talk about our children sleeping while sugar plums danced in their heads!

After all, carbohydrates have always been a busy mom’s best friend. Which one of us hasn’t come home, looked in the pantry, looked in the fridge, looked at the clock, and then innocently asked the loaded question: “Who would like macaroni and cheese tonight?” As if we didn’t already know the answer. Throw in a few veggies, or apples if you want to get really exotic, slice up the leftover chicken nuggets, and suddenly in the eyes of our children (and ourselves), we are nothing short of a gourmet chef.

But at Thanksgiving, we can’t credit the food alone with the slumber we seek. A rich array of foods coupled with extra time to eat and a self-serve meal model can encourage us to eat too much.  When we eat too much, our digestive system works extra hard to digest the extra food, which wears us down. We all know how easy it is too eat too much when we sit down at Thanksgiving.

So, what will I be doing this Thanksgiving to encourage my kids to get a little extra sleep while ensuring they don’t overeat? I’ll encourage the kids to taste the turkey, the macaroni and cheese, the creamy, mashed potatoes, the yams and my favorite, the rutabagas. But I’ll watch their portion size and make sure that they spend plenty of time outside running and playing. Oh, and I’ll offer some fresh fruits and vegetables as well.  Now if only I could, in good conscience, count pumpkin pie as a vegetable and apple pie as a fruit.


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