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Holiday bird and post-meal napping

Published on -11/1/2013, 9:59 AM

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"You can tell you ate too much for Thanksgiving when you have to let your bathrobe out." -- Jay Leno

Thanksgiving is coming up fast. Some of us will be on the road or in the sky heading to our destinations, while others will be preparing for our holiday arrival. November is certainly a month to cherish time spent with family and friends.

I started to think about some of the holiday myths that seem to pop up during this time -- one of which is turkey and tryptophan. According to some, the tryptophan that is digested with the holiday turkey causes a type of blissful, sleep-state only the holiday-turkey can provide. I set out to see if this holiday-nugget was fact or fiction.

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid in the human diet. An essential amino acid is one not produced by the body and must be consumed. Amino acids digested in the human body from the diet either are used to synthesize proteins and other biomolecules or are oxidized to urea and carbon dioxide as a source of energy.

There are some interesting facts about this "holiday" amino acid. Tryptophan functions as a biochemical building-block for several compounds within the human body including the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Serotonin can be converted to melatonin through an additional reaction within the human body. (Over-the-counter melatonin has been sold for years, packaged as a sleep aid. As with most supplements, some swear by it and others have felt no real changes in sleep quality.)

Back to the turkey and tryptophan: The idea is that shortly after the consumption of the meal the consumer will fall into post-feast drowsiness due to the tryptophan concentration within the turkey meat. However, with further investigation it was found the concentration of tryptophan within turkey meat is similar with most other meats. So, why do we find the story of post-meal drowsiness all too familiar?

The answer to the post-meal drowsiness may not come from only the centerpiece of the meal (turkey) but in addition to what we place around it. The heavy consumption of carbohydrates has been demonstrated to invoke many biochemical events within the human body; specifically, insulin release. It is thought that this increase of insulin release after a large meal provides an easier pathway for the tryptophan to cross into the cerebral spinal fluid (the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord) and undergo additional biochemical events to cause the post-feast drowsiness. In other words, if a person loads up on the turkey and the pumpkin pie afterword that person needs to get ready for a power-nap.

The holiday-feast fatigue certainly can and does occur but not exactly how the myth tells the tale. The most important part of the holiday really isn't what and how much we can consume before we have to "let your bathrobe out," but instead the gift of good souls with us during this festive time.

November is a great month for many reasons. It is a kick-start to the holiday season and gives us the opportunity to see family and friends. It also brings us Thanksgiving: a time to reconsider what gifts we have been provided. It is a time not only to celebrate those gifts but also an opportunity for all of us to show true compassion and continued goodwill.

To the reader, I wish a magnificent month of November, safe holiday travel and continued good health.

As with all medical conditions, always feel free to contact your physician or health care provider with any questions or concerns.

Dr. Charles Weintz is the author of "Healthy Headlines." He is a family physician and medical director at Stanton County Family Practice.

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