Ah…the advent of the holiday season.  Usually accompanied by excited anticipation of Thanksgiving and or Christmas feasts involving a huge bird and numerous trimmings.   

Many will relate to the inevitable post-meal “Turkey Coma,” manifested as an overwhelming drowsiness that makes you want to collapse on the sofa watching Friends re-runs and giving thanks for the elasticated waistband. 

All too often, the poor old turkey is unfairly touted as the cause of our post-prandial slump…but is this actually more myth than reality? 

The Theory: What’s going on in your body when you eat turkey 

The “Turkey=Sleepiness” theory stems from the fact that protein-rich turkey contains lots of amino acids (the building blocks of protein), including one called L-Tryptophan. Now stay with us on this... 

Tryptophan doesn’t have a sedative effect in itself, but once in the brain, is converted into the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Serotonin is then used to make melatonin, a.k.a “the sleep hormone” because it helps regulate sleep and wake cycles.   

However, for this to happen, tryptophan has to first get across the special defence protecting the brain from toxins, known as the Blood-Brain Barrier.  This is achieved via a carrier-protein transporter. However, with only one transporter and a host of amino acids vying for it, this is a pretty difficult job. In simple terms, picture a crowd of commuters fighting for the space on a 1-seater Ferry. Its all down to luck, and your barging skills.

Luckily for Tryptophan, it has a helpful hero to aid it in this process, in the form of the hormone insulin. Insulin is released to help your body breakdown and use sugar, particularly when you eat carbohydrate-rich meals.   Insulin stimulates the uptake of other amino acids (but not tryptophan) into the tissues…meaning that tryptophan is left in the bloodstream with less competition for transport and can be more easily absorbed across the Blood-Brain barrier. 

So…is it the combination of eating the Turkey with all the carbohydrate-containing sides and desserts that makes you tired? 

It might be true that carbohydrates help tryptophan get into your brain, and therefore indirectly support an increase in the levels of sleep-promoting melatonin.

However, a host of other foods, such as chicken, salmon, lamb, beef, nuts, cheese, oats, seeds, beans, and eggs, also contain high amounts of tryptophan - some with greater levels per serving than turkey.  Yet eating these in carb-containing meals doesn’t necessarily make you sleepy.   

Here are a few more probable explanations for that post-turkey fatigue:

The Carb Crash 

It’s much more likely that the TYPE of carbohydrates you are eating (think mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, creamed corn, stuffing, and of course pumpkin pie) are responsible for that lethargic feeling.  These “simple” carbohydrates release glucose quickly into your bloodstream, causing a large spike and then a big fall in both your blood sugar AND your energy levels.  

Portion Delusion 

How many of us consume far more than we would typically eat at a “normal” meal at Thanksgiving or on Christmas Day? 

Those second-helpings of typically high-calorie and high-fat food mean your body encourages blood flow to the gastrointestinal system to try and digest all that turkey with the trimming, not to mention the desserts and alcohol.  This triggers the release of other gut hormones, one in particular, called Cholecystokinin (“CCK”), which is known to cause drowsiness. 

One too many glasses of wine 

Nothing washes down that delicious turkey feast like a glass of red wine.

However, a few too many glasses of Grandpa’s cough medicine make it much more likely that you’ll hit that after-dinner slump.  Besides having a sedative effect, alcohol also delays digestion, slowing down the rate at which your stomach empties. This will also contribute to the “overfull” feeling. 


5 Tips for avoiding the holiday “food coma” 

Holiday feasts don’t have to leave you comatose in front of the TV. Here are a few tips to avoid going all-in on the day of Thanks.  

1) Eat small amounts throughout the day 

Having a protein-based breakfast and snacks throughout the day will assist in balancing blood sugar and hunger.  This will help to resist the temptation to over-eat later in the day, meaning the meal doesn’t leave you feeling drowsy or as stuffed as the turkey.  

2) Eat Slowly 

Take your time eating to allow yourself to register when you feel full, and exercise portion control.  Have the pumpkin pie – but start with a small slice first before thinking about whether you really need another.  

3) Balance your plate 

Opt for lighter veggie sides and pair these with the turkey to make up most of your plate. This will automatically help you to take less of the high fat/high sugar trimmings, such as stuffing, corn and mashed potatoes, that can lead to lethargy. 

4) Go easy on the alcohol 

Intersperse your alcoholic drinks with sparkling water and lemon/lime. This kills two birds with one stone, as the added hydration will be useful when it comes to preventing a hangover. 

5) Get Moving

 A short walk in the fresh air not only energises and aids digestion, it also helps regulate your blood sugar. 


Moral of the story – the bird is not always to blame for the that Turkey Coma!

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