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Why Does Tryptophan Make You Sleep?

Parmesan cheese has high levels of tryptophan.
Serotonin and melatonin, which help with sleep, might be produced by eating food with tryptophan.
Kidney beans, which are a good source of tryptophan.
Turkey can make for a good midnight snack because the tryptophan can help a person fall to sleep.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2014
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Tryptophan can make someone sleepy for several different reasons, though in general the tryptophan found in turkey is not solely responsible for feelings of sleepiness after a large holiday meal. When consumed alone, tryptophan in food can make you sleepy, though this typically has to be consumed with little or no other food to be effective. If eaten with other foods, then the amount of food eaten will often impact how sleepy a person feels afterward, and high amounts of carbohydrates can also increase how sleepy someone feels after eating turkey or similar dishes.

Many people often feel sleepy or tired after eating a large holiday meal, such as at Christmas or the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Since these meals often include turkey, the tryptophan found in turkey is frequently blamed for these feelings of sleepiness after the conclusion of the meal. The reality, however, is that turkey has relatively low amounts of tryptophan in it, equivalent to other poultry such as chicken, and far less than foods like parmesan cheese or sesame seeds. Tryptophan can make a person feel sleepy or tired, but this typically occurs for one of two reasons.

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When consumed on an otherwise relatively empty stomach, without other foods, foods rich in tryptophan can make a person sleepy by producing serotonin and melatonin, both chemicals involved in a person’s sleep cycles. This is why a midnight snack consisting of a small turkey sandwich or a small helping of turkey can effectively help a person fall asleep. When consumed with other foods, however, the turkey itself is typically not the sole culprit in causing sleepiness. Much of the sleepiness felt after a large holiday meal is due to the other foods that are eaten as well.

A holiday meal of turkey is often accompanied by other large amounts of food, many of them high in carbohydrates such as dinner rolls, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pie. These carbohydrates cause the tryptophan introduced into a person’s system to be more easily absorbed into the central nervous system of the eater. This in turn creates higher levels of serotonin and melatonin. It is the high amounts of carbohydrates consumed with turkey that allow the tryptophan to contribute to feelings of sleepiness.

The average holiday meal, especially Thanksgiving in the US, is also extremely high in calories and fat, and often accompanied by alcohol. This large meal requires a great deal of energy for the body to digest, and blood is diverted from other systems in a person’s body to the stomach to help with digestion. The rest of a person’s body, therefore, has less energy and less oxygenation, causing feelings of sleepiness and lethargy. Alcohol that is consumed with the large meal can also act as a sedative in the person’s system, contributing to his or her sleepiness.

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donasmrs
Post 3

@fBoyle-- I actually think that tryptophan may work very quickly. I think that this is also why people drink warm milk before bed. Milk is also a great source of tryptophan and it induces sleep.

Perhaps tryptophan in different foods interacts differently with the different compounds in those foods. This might affect how quickly the tryptophan causes the production of melatonin. How else can we explain the sleepiness phenomenon after foods like turkey and milk? Other foods don't make us as sleepy though, like chicken and vegetables. So I don't think that the tryptophan in all foods are equally effective.

fBoyle
Post 2

I'm not an expert on this topic but I don't think that tryptophan causes sleepiness as quickly as people think it does.

It's true that tryptophan promotes melatonin which regulates sleep. But first it must increase serotonin levels which will then increase melatonin levels. I don't think that this entire process can occur so quickly that we will feel sleepy right after eating turkey. The reason that we're so tired and sleepy after the Thanksgiving meal is because we eat too much. Too much food causes sluggishness.

SteamLouis
Post 1

I think that there is some confusion about tryptophan in foods and its effectiveness. I read recently that in order for tryptophan to induce and regulate sleep, it must be consumed with a small amount of carbohydrate. Other say that the food containing tryptophan must be consumed alone. I guess experts are still figuring out how tryptophan works exactly.

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