Stop Blaming the Turkey, and Tryptophan!

Every Thanksgiving people complain about their tiredness and fatigue following the annual feast.  For the shortened week that follows, productivity and performance decline in the workplace and we all blame our comatose state on tryptophan, an  amino acid that we, for some reason, have collectively come to associate with turkey.

Tryptophan gets a bad name from the reputation of causing tiredness, fatigue, headaches, and bloating.  It's unfair to turkey, too. Because it's not the tryptophan (or turkey) that is making you tired, slow or bloated at all!


Tryptophan is an essential amino acid

We require adequate amounts in our diet to survive and thrive - we cannot synthesize it from our other fuel sources.  We are dependent on our food sources for it (yet another reason to ensure you're getting enough protein - more on that in a few moments).

Tryptophan is also the dietary precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which, amongst other things, helps to regulate mood and proper digestion.  Further down this same biochemical pathway is melatonin - the "sleep hormone".  And it's probably this connection to melatonin that people ascribe their post-Thanksgiving tiredness tryptophan and turkey.

But just hold on a second.  Firstly, tryptophan is high in almost every food that is high in protein.  Turkey is not unique in that it contains high tryptophan levels.  Foods that contain similar or strikingly higher amounts of tryptophan per weight than turkey include, but are not limited to: All red meats, most cheese, eggs, chicken, soy, most fish, especially cod, spirulina, and chickpeas.  But we don't go around after a steak or green smoothie complaining about our fatigue do we?


Melatonin is not a sedative.  

Melatonin is a signalling hormone involved in sleep and wakefulness cycles, or circadian rhythms.  In many ways, melatonin release in the body should be the opposite of cortisol.  When cortisol is high (ideally in the morning), melatonin should conversely be low.  In the evening, in response to darkness and in the absence of light, melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland in your brain, when cortisol is lowest.  These alternating patterns of hormone release, are in integral part of how our body regulates sleep and wakefulness.  Melatonin, however, is less sedative, and more of a reminder to your own body to release it's own melatonin.  We take melatonin as a supplement to reset and retrain our body to the timing of this release, but melatonin is not directly sedative.  


Stop vilifying tryptophan.  

It's not the turkey that's making you tired and lazy - It's the outrageous consumption of simple carbohydrates that you are consuming (and maybe alcohol) that make you crash!  Carbs, especially highly fermentable grains, are even more likely to be the culprit of your gas & bloating, and may even be contributing to other digestive issues, like the newest explanation for IBS - SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, a topic for a later post).  If you've been paying attention lately, you'll know that scientists and doctors are finally getting a grip on the fact that it's carbs, not fat, and not even red meat or cholesterol, that are the major dietary culprit behind obesity, overweightness, and even inflammatory diseases as common as cardiovascular disease (which kills about 30% of the world's population currently).


Pragmatism moment

I'm certainly not going to tell you to skip the stuffing (I love stuffing too OK?). If you don't have food allergies, sensitivities or reactions (ie. you're Celiac), or you've found a safe version of stuffing for your health situation - Let's just remember that in your average 100g of (commercial) stuffing, we're talking about close to 400 calories (thats more than my morning protein smoothie/shake), 1400+mg of sodium (about half the recommended daily intake for an average healthy person, and it's probably about 90% of your daily recommended intake for someone with high blood pressure and/or nutrigenomic SNPs that are suggestive of high risk associated with sodium) and 75g of carbs.  If you are looking to maintain or achieve a healthy, lean and active body and lifestyle, the average carbohydrate consumption I typically recommend is between 100-125g total per day.  That's more than half your recommendation in one serving of stuffing!  If you are thinking of ketogenic or low-carb diets, this smaller-than-your-fist serving of stuffing is worth two whole days worth of your carb intake guideline.  

So go help yourself to some more turkey (and vegetables - remember to try to eat more colourful vegetables than everything else on your plate at all times) - Protein is essential for neurotransmitter production, and cholesterol is essential for sex and stress hormone production, by the way.  If you're reading my blog, you're likely just like the people I work with to get the most out of their bodies and minds every day - You're mostly healthy but want to be awesome, want to be at the top of your game for work, play and your family.  You're at least somewhat active and yes, you've got reasonably high levels of stress.  If this sounds like you, you probably require about 1.25g of protein for every kilogram of body weight (kilograms, not pounds - divide your weight in lbs by 2.21 to get kilograms) as a daily minimum.

Look, I get it.  I'm thankful for access to great healthy food, company, and family.  And I'm thankful for the opportunity to share Thanksgiving with those people and to have freedom of choice.  So I have no issue with you binging a little or cheating a little on your prescribed diet, or living your life to its fullest, this Thanksgiving.

But please, stop blaming the turkey, and accept that your gluttony, especially of carbs, is the culprit for your week-long fatigue. 

And seriously, who goes for just one serving of stuffing?

Dr. Jason Marr is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor, Expert Health & Wellness Speaker and Director of Evoke Integrative Medicine in downtown Vancouver.  He believes that by maximizing individual performance, productivity and resilience, we can collectively change the world for the better.  He arms urban professionals with real-world tools and knowledge to enable people to achieve their goals and live their lives to the fullest.