Stop Tripping on Tryptophan by Elizabeth Brown, MS, RD

The turkey made me do it

It’s been more than a week since we all indulged on turkey and then promptly fell asleep. So if you’re still blaming the turkey for your post-meal fatigue, you can forget it. First of all, you should not have been eating leftovers beyond Sunday. The life of cooked turkey and stuffing is three to four days including the day you prepare the meal.

Second, let’s dispel the turkey/tryptophan myth—

It’s a common holiday conversation. You’re sitting at the table. A relative has just finished telling an embarrassing family tale. There’s a lull in the conversation and an otherwise quiet, contemplative family member pipes up stating, “Do you know why you always get sleepy after the Thanksgiving meal? There’s something in turkey called tryptophan that makes you sleepy.”

It is true that there is tryptophan in turkey and tryptophan is related to sleep. However, there is tryptophan in many protein-rich foods. In fact, caribou and Atlantic cod have two to three times more tryptophan than turkey. If tryptophan from food sources really was such a wonder drug, then caribou and cod might be a regular addition to the physician prescription pad for treating insomnia.

Here’s the real deal with tryptophan.

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. We cannot make it in our bodies. Therefore, it must be obtained from the diet. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, a brain chemical that helps regulate mood, food intake, pain tolerance and sleep. Serotonin levels are directly related to tryptophan’s ability to enter the brain as well as the availability of vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid. Since tryptophan is obtained through dietary protein, it seems logical that a protein-rich meal should increase blood tryptophan and brain serotonin levels.

The truth is that tryptophan actually affects serotonin levels after eating a carbohydrate-rich meal.

Tryptophan is a large, neutral amino acid (LNAA) that shares an entry gate into the brain with several other LNAAs. After eating a protein-rich meal, you flood the blood with not only tryptophan but also its competing LNAAs. Tryptophan loses the battle as the other LNAAs gain entrance into the brain. Consequently, serotonin levels do not rise.

When you eat a carbohydrate-rich diet, you stimulate the release of insulin, a hormone that helps your body move glucose from the bloodstream into cells such as muscle cells where glucose can be used for energy. Insulin also facilitates the uptake of all LNAAs – except tryptophan – by the muscle cells. With the competing LNAAs out of the way, free-flowing tryptophan now has an all-access pass to the brain.

After a heavy holiday meal, there’s increased blood flow to the digestive tract and less blood flow to other vital organs. It’s no wonder you want to unbuckle your belt and lie down to catch a few Zzzz’s. The excess calories, whether from carbohydrates, protein or fat, simply put excessive strain on the body. Sleep is inevitable.

Since we have a lull between holiday festivities, perhaps you can try this lighter bird-based meal with the right combination of carbohydrates, protein and fat plus the best sources of B6, B12 and folic acid. Together, they may induce an afternoon siesta instead of a full day snooze. Napping is certainly suitable in moderation.

Five Spice Free-Range Foul with steamed greens and long grain brown rice

2 boneless, skinless bird breasts (~6oz each) cut into 2 inch pieces
32 oz organic Chicken broth
1 medium onion
, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 inch ginger root, minced
6 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
5 star anise

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
6 dried or fresh shiitake mushrooms
1 pound green beans
, ends cut off & chopped into 1 inch pieces

1 Tablespoon arrow root for thickening

In a large skillet, heat 1/4 cup chicken broth on medium heat. Add the onions & garlic and sauté until fragrant. Add the rest of the chicken broth, ginger, cloves, cinnamon sticks, star anise, fennel seeds, & shiitake mushrooms (only add shiitakes here if they are dry). If shiitakes are fresh set aside to add at the end. Turn heat to medium and simmer for 15 minutes to allow broth to become infused with spices. While broth is simmering, cut beans and fresh shiitakes. If you added dried shiitakes, remove them after 15 minutes, slice and set aside. Bring the broth back to a boil/simmer. Add chicken pieces and green beans. If using fresh shiitakes, add after chicken is cooked through. If using dried shiitakes, add them back at the end. Mix in shiitakes & heat with the chicken & green beans. Allow flavors to meld for about ten minutes. Dissolve 1 Tablespoon arrow root into 1/4 cup water or broth. Add to chicken mixture to thicken sauce. Add more arrow root as needed until reaching a gravy-like consistency. Divide into four servings. Serve with 1/2 cup long grain brown rice and one cup steamed greens such as Swiss chard, spinach or kale.
Per serving with rice and greens: 365 calories, 7g fat, 40g carbs, 10g fiber, 35g protein.