Ingredient Intelligence

Here’s the Real Reason Why Turkey Makes You So Sleepy

updated Nov 7, 2023
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

When the holidays finally roll around, one thing you know you’ll be doing is eating a lot of really delicious food. Amidst all of the honey-glazed ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole, you’re sure to have your fair share of roasted turkey come Thanksgiving. 

One feeling many of us are familiar with is post-Thanksgiving dinner fatigue. When you combine the fullness you feel from all of the tasty main courses, the festive holiday drinks, and, of course, all of the delicious holiday pies, it’s not uncommon to feel sleepy.

But is it the turkey itself — and the often-blamed tryptophan it contains — that makes you feel sleepy, as is commonly believed? We asked a sleep expert to weigh in. 

The truth of the matter is that there is little scientific evidence to support the claim that turkey by itself makes a person sleepy. “There is definitely a placebo effect,” says Dr. Aarti Grover, MD, medical director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Tufts Medical Center. “It is tempting to blame the turkey, but the tryptophan from this holiday dish likely doesn’t make you sleepy on its own.”

It’s true that turkey contains tryptophan — an amino acid that’s used in the production of serotonin, which, in turn leads to the production of melatonin, which helps balance circadian rhythms. However, turkey is just one of many foods, including other poultry, meat, and fish, that contain tryptophan. 

More than anything else, the sheer amount of rich food we consume on the holiday is likely the reason behind feeling a bit sleepy. “There is a consumption of so many other things on Thanksgiving holiday including high amounts of carbohydrates [like] bread, potatoes, peas, pies and sugary drinks, and fats,” notes Grover. “[This] can lead to feeling fatigued post meal.”  

Bottom line: It’s the whole Thanksgiving feast that might make you feel sleepy, and not the turkey alone.