Thanksgiving is next week! Every time the holidays roll around I am amazed at how fast the year has gone by. Thanksgiving is not known has the healthiest of holidays as it is usually centered around eating too much. This year I want to point out a few ways we can get health benefits from our annual feast.
The first thing to talk about it is the inaccurate thinking that eating turkey makes you happy and then sleepy. The conventional wisdom tells us that turkey has high levels of tryptophan (an amino acid or protein that your body uses for many different processes) and that this tryptophan has the happy and then sleepy effects associated with our big meal. This was thought to be true because tryptophan is the amino acid that your body uses to make serotonin, which is associated with making us feel happy. It was also thought that the sleepy effect came later because some of that serotonin is converted into melatonin, which promotes sleepiness. But this line of thinking is not as accurate as we think.
First of all, turkey doesn’t really have that much tryptophan and eating it on Thanksgiving isn’t likely to have the effects described above more than any other meal you eat. Pork has much higher levels of tryptophan and caribou (reindeer) has even higher levels, but let’s not skip ahead to the next holiday. Secondly, tryptophan is not that highly absorbed into the brain so that it can make serotonin or melatonin. However, we can greatly increase the absorption of tryptophan if there is lots of glucose in the bloodstream. This can happen when we eat lots of carbohydrates, and there is no shortage of mashed potatoes, breads, and pies at Thanksgiving.
But even without the turkey, higher carbohydrate meals can cause the happy or energetic feeling followed by sleepiness. When we eat simple or nutrient poor carbohydrates it spikes our blood sugar. This can give us a period of higher energy. However, when our body tries to correct this increase in blood glucose it tends to over correct a little. This leads to lower blood sugar which can make us feel fatigued and sleepy. So, when looking at the idea that tryptophan in turkey causes these effects, it may not be the turkey to blame. It is more likely to do with the high processed carbohydrates found in our traditional meal that increase tryptophan absorption into the brain and cause a spike and then bottom out of blood sugar. Therefore, it is healthier to stick to eating turkey only this Thanksgiving. Especially if the turkey you get is pastured raised or wild caught as these turkeys will have much higher nutrient content and much less toxins in them.
The last thing I want to discuss about this holiday is the importance of truly giving thanks. Sometimes the “thanks” giving gets lost in all the food and football. Research has shown that expressing gratitude leads to better health outcomes in many categories.1 So while you are enjoying the time off and the family time this holiday don’t forget to skip the carbs and focus on the pastured turkey as well as paying particular attention to being grateful for all the many things there are to be grateful for in this world.
1. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389. doi:10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.527