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The Turkey myth

There is a myth that eating tryptophan rich foods will put you to sleep. It is known as the turkey myth. There is an important distinction to make here. Eating tryptophan rich foods will help provide your body with the materials it needs to produce high levels of serotonin and melatonin, which both help regulate and promote healthy, natural sleep. The distinction is that they will not produce enough to make you feel drowsy.

The myth itself stems from the feeling many Americans experience after eating a large thanksgiving turkey meal. Quite often, after such a huge feast, one begins to feel drowsy and lethargic. It was widely believed that this was due to the relatively high tryptophan content within turkey meat. However, this feeling of sleepiness is more likely to be the result of feasting on copious amounts of food, eating them in poorly digestible combinations, drinking alcohol on top of it, and blood being diverted from the rest of the body to the gastrointestinal tract.

For tryptophan to actually induce drowsiness, and not just support healthy sleep, it must be taken as a pure supplement on an empty stomach. If any other proteins or amino acids are present, it will not induce sleepiness. For this reason, those who want to get sleepy need to take a pure supplement, ideally right before going to bed.

This happens because when consumed in food, tryptophan must compete with all of the other amino acids and nutrients that the body is trying to absorb. Meaning only a small portion of it is utilized and turned into serotonin and melatonin. When taken on an empty stomach in supplement form, there is no competition, and a great deal of melatonin is produced – inducing a sleepy feeling.

Consider this. Chicken, cheese and many other commonly eaten foods actually contain much higher amounts of tryptophan than turkey, but they do not usually induce a feeling of drowsiness after eating, largely because there are many other amino acids present.

It may seem quite surprising, but carbohydrate rich foods containing tryptophan are actually the best to eat. This is because carbs stimulate the pancreas, which releases insulin into the blood. This causes all the other amino acids tryptophan has to compete with to leave the bloodstream and enter the muscles, leaving tryptophan free reign to enter the brain.