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'Turkey Makes You Sleepy' and More Thanksgiving Myths

'Turkey Makes You Sleepy' and More Thanksgiving Myths

For such a popular holiday, Thanksgiving is surprisingly misunderstood

How well do you know your turkey? As Thanksgiving nears, we thought it would be a good time to get to know your dinner. After all, cooking a turkey is sort of like going on a first date: the more you know, the easier it is to get through. And as the big bird needs a few days of prep and several hours of cooking, we figured it was time to get you two better acquainted. Plus, the fine specimen perched on your great-grandmother’s serving platter has a knack for being the talk of the town. But don't worry, the beautiful bird on your Thanksgiving table is anything but boring.

After years of serving turkey the same way, you’re probably wondering what mystery or intrigue surrounds this traditional dinner. But like most traditions or hand-me-down cultural experiences, a lot gets lost in translation, from bird facts to cooking methods. And there is a lot that needs to be cleared up. For instance, was the turkey really almost the country’s national bird? And does turkey really make you sleepy?

We took a look at some of the common beliefs surrounding turkey and uncovered the interesting truths behind this tasty bird. From basting to stuffing, here are some interesting facts about your favorite November foul!

For more turkey talk, check out The Daily Meal’s Ultimate Guide to Thanksgiving

Why Does Turkey Make You Sleepy?

Stop blaming the turkey for your post-Thanksgiving dinner slump. It&rsquos a myth that eating turkey puts you to sleep. Although turkey contains tryptophan, it&rsquos more likely the carbs that put you to sleep.

In fact, when you eat a protein-rich meal, you reduce the amount of tryptophan that will cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) compared to a carbohydrate-rich meal. Tryptophan will more easily cross the BBB after a high carbohydrate meal.

MORE: 20 Chic Thanksgiving Crafts to Decorate Your Table

Here, we investigated some of the biggest myths surrounding Thanksgiving to see how they hold up under the microscope.

1. Turkey makes you sleepy.
False—sort of.
This is the possibly the biggest myth surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday. The chemical tryptophan gets tossed around a lot as to why turkey makes you sleepy, but in reality there is no more tryptophan in turkey than there is in pork or cheddar cheese or even spinach for that matter. So then why are you so tired after eating your Thanksgiving meal? Do you really need to ask—you’ve just packed four meals into one, along with booze, perhaps, and a long day spent with family. So no, you’re not exhausted after Thanksgiving solely because of the turkey, but we won’t blame you for wanting to take that extra-long nap after dinner.

2. The pilgrims ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving, and that’s why we eat it every Thanksgiving.
While it isn’t exactly known what was eaten on the first Thanksgiving, there are historical accounts that venison was the main dish served. Author and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale concocted the Thanksgiving we know of today. Hale published in the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and started traditions that had nothing to do with the that 1621 feast. She successfully lobbied President Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863 agreed to declare Thanksgiving an annual holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November every year.

Learn why these 5 Thanksgiving turkey myths aren't true so you can impress your friends

I'm not sure how Thanksgiving dinner goes at your home, but at my house, we spend a lot of the meal talking about the food we're eating — and what we're gonna eat next. In and among the descriptions of how we've made the pumpkin pie even better this year or how stuffing is not the same thing as dressing, we always come back to talking about turkey. It is, after all, the centerpiece of the meal (no matter how much more we love the sides), so it's kind of inevitable.

This year, I'm going to encourage you to do the same. Talk turkey, but instead of helping to spread myths about America's favorite poultry (at least come late November), let's disseminate turkey truths. There's enough nonsense out there in the world right now, so help your family and friends get these five facts straight.

Eating turkey makes you tired
While you may have heard this myth busted before, it still gets repeated over and over again this time of year. The fact remains: tryptophan, an amino acid that is found in turkey (in addition to all poultry and most protein-based foods), isn't what makes you tired on Thanksgiving. The massive amount of food consumed at once, coupled with alcohol consumption is the recipe for a post-dinner nap.

You have to brine your turkey in order for it to stay juicy and flavorful
While brines will certainly add additional moisture to your turkey, they won't necessarily make your turkey more flavorful. The only components of a traditional brine that make it more than skin deep into the bird are salt and water, so forget about that cider and sage and whatnot. (Those flavor molecules end up getting left behind.) More water isn't really a good thing when it comes to mild turkey, so we prefer to dry brine the bird — you'll get salt deep into the bird for flavor, but won't have to worry about flavor-diluting water as well. The only reason you'd want that extra water in there is in case you plan to overcook your turkey, which you're not going to do, right? Use a thermometer (a real thermometer) and pull the turkey out of the oven when the breasts register 150 degrees and the legs are at least 165.

Pop-up turkey thermometers are just as good as meat thermometers
Don't ever trust those little buggers. They're designed to pop up once the turkey reaches around 180 or 185 degrees, which is disastrously overcooked. If your turkey comes with one, throw it out and invest in a digital instant read thermometer. Digital thermometers don't have to be expensive, they'll tell you when your meat is cooked but still juicy, and you can use them again next year — or the next time you roast a chicken.

Basting makes your turkey moist
While basting your turkey can make it cook (slightly) faster and (often) increases browning, it won't do much to boost moisture. Basting will help distribute those little bits of rendered fat over the top of the bird, so it will add flavor the skin, but at the same time, that moisture makes it near-on impossible to have crisp skin. Beyond that, it's not going to seriously hurt your turkey, but why take that extra step? We skip it. Crisp skin forever.

You've got to cook a whole bird for Thanksgiving or it isn't Thanksgiving
OK, we get it. There's some glamour and showmanship that comes along with pulling out a whole bronzed turkey and carving it table-side. But cooking a whole turkey on a rack in a roasting pan is actually a terrible way to get perfectly cooked meat. This method insulates the parts of the bird that need extra cooking (the legs) and elevates the parts that need the least (the breast), so by the time the legs are cooked, the white meat is often hopelessly dry. A better solution is to butterfly the turkey (more on that later this week) or to simply scrap the whole bird and roast the part that most guests want to eat anyway — the breast. You can purchase whole, bone in turkey breasts easily this time of year and they cook far faster than a whole bird. Pick up two if you're feeding a crowd.

Kate Williams is the former editor-in-chief of Southern Kitchen. She was also the on-air personality on our podcast, Sunday Supper. She's worked in food since 2009, including a two-year stint at America&rsquos Test Kitchen. Kate has been a personal chef, recipe developer, the food editor at a hyperlocal news site in Berkeley and a freelance writer for publications such as Serious Eats, Anova Culinary, The Cook&rsquos Cook and Berkeleyside. Kate is also an avid rock climber and occasionally dabbles in long-distance running. She makes a mean peach pie and likes her bourbon neat.

Is There Something in Turkey That Makes You Sleepy?

Turkey does have the makings of a natural sedative in i­t, an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning that the body can't manufacture it. The body has to get tryptophan and other essential amino acids from food. Tryptophan helps the body produce the B-vitaminniacin, which, ­in turn, helps the body produce serotonin, a remarkable chemical that acts as a calming agent in the brain and plays a key role in sleep. So you might think that if you eat a lot of turkey, your body would produce more serotonin and you would feel calm and want a nap.

­That was the conclusion that led many people to­ begin taking a dietary supplement of tryptophan in the 1980s as a way to treat insomnia, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administrationbanned tryptophan supplements in 1990 because of an outbreak of eosinophilia-myalgia, a syndrome that causes muscle pain and even death. The FDA said contaminated tryptophan sup­plements caused the outbreak [source: FDA].

­But nutritionists and other experts say that the tryptophan in turkey probably won't trigger the body to produce more seroton­in because tryptophan works best on an empty stomach. The tryptophan in a Thanksgiving turkey has to vie with all the other amino acids that the body is trying to use. So only part of the tryptophan makes it to the brain to help produce serotonin.

In the next section, we'll look at what may be the real reason why so many of us just want to take a nap on Thanksgiving.

Multiple Sclerosis Fighter?

Tryptophan won't put you to sleep this Thursday, but it can produce several helpful substances, including serotonin, melatonin, and kynurenines.

Serotonin affects mood, melatonin helps regulate sleep, and kynurenines may be useful in regulating the immune system.

A drug called tranilast, available in Japan as an allergy medication, is chemically similar to kynurenines and shows promise for the treatment of certain autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases result from overactive immune systems that attack important cells.

"If what we're seeing in mice is translatable in humans—and that's a very, very, very big if—it could have some quite beneficial effects," said Lawrence Steinman, a professor of neurology and neurological sciences at the Stanford School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California.

Steinman tested the drug on mice with a multiple sclerosis-like condition. He found that it relieved paralysis and other symptoms as effectively as any existing medicines for the condition.

His research was reported in the November 4 issue of the journal Science.

"These compounds have some remarkable qualities," Steinman said of the kyurenines.

"Through a very interesting mechanism, they reduce the strength of the immune signal. In general that is something to worry about, because we need a strong immune system to fight viruses and bacteria," he said.

But kynurenines seem to shut down only "bad" immune responses—responses that degrade the body's ability to defend itself.

But don't expect turkey treatment for such serious ailments. Eating even tryptophan-rich foods would have no effect, as the substance would be broken down in the body.

"I'm a strong believer that your diet is very important, but making manipulations in the diet to specifically improve the immune system is rather hard to do," Steinman said.

"If one wants to elevate the kynurenines in the body, it would be better to develop a drug that happens to look like kynurenines," rather than like tryptophan.

What is tryptophan?

Trytophan is one of the amino acids, which the body uses to make proteins to help it grow and repair tissue. The body can’t produce tryptophan, so you must get it from your diet. Turkey is a good source, yes, but so is cheese, chicken, fish, milk, peanuts, egg whites and more.

Amino acids do more than just build muscle — some of them are the “starter” compounds for brain neurotransmitters, Fernstrom said.

“Tryptophan can become serotonin — the brain chemical that calms, causes sleep, among other things — if the right enzymes are around to do so,” she noted.

Does turkey make you sleepy?

I t's almost Thanksgiving, and that means it's time to eat — and time to nap. You may have heard that turkey is to blame for your post-Thanksgiving sleepiness. But although turkey does contain a chemical that makes humans want to curl up in bed, you can't blame your sluggishness on the bird. Stuffing is the more likely culprit.

Many people believe that turkey makes them sleepy, and for good reason: The meat contains an amino (ah-ME-no) acid — those are the building blocks of proteins — called tryptophan (TRIP-toe-fan). It helps the body make important chemicals called hormones, including melatonin (MEL-ah-TOE-nin). High melatonin levels tell your brain it’s time to go to sleep.

“Melatonin is well-known as being the hormone that lulls everyone to sleep. So people assume that this must be why turkey makes everyone so sleepy,” says Kimberley Chien, a doctor at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital whose specialty is kids’ digestive systems. But lots of other foods have tryptophan — even chocolate has it — and some meats contain more of it than turkey does. So why is it just turkey that has a reputation for making us drowsy?

Chien thinks that other Thanksgiving foods give turkey a boost. All of the stuffing, mashed potatoes, rolls and pies you eat are full of sugars, and the chemicals your body uses to digest them happen to make it easier for other chemicals to get to your brain. A sort of wall usually exists between the blood flowing through your body and the blood flowing through your brain, but the process of digesting a tummy full of sugar makes it easier for certain things to slip through. This means tryptophan can trigger sleepytime chemical production more quickly.

Eating a large meal full of fats and sugars will make you tired even without tryptophan, Chien says. When your stomach is full and stretched, your brain gets a signal telling it to send plenty of blood and energy down there to help you digest. That means less blood and energy for the rest of you!

Then there’s the fact that the holiday is busy. You probably spent the morning helping clean up the house and set the table — or bundled up on a long car ride to have dinner at someone else’s house. Who wouldn’t be tired?

If you want to avoid feeling as stuffed as your roast turkey, try eating slowly and starting off with small portions. You can always have more food later, but taking your time will keep you from eating so much that you feel sick. Also, eat plenty of vegetables and drink plenty of water. It’s easier to enjoy your pumpkin pie when you’re not falling asleep in it!

Thanksgiving Myth Busted: Eating Turkey Won't Make You Sleepy

The oft-repeated turkey myth stems from the fact that turkey contains the amino acid tryptophan, which forms the basis of brain chemicals that make people tired. But turkey isn't any more sleep-inducing than other foods. In fact, consuming large amounts of carbohydrates and alcohol may be the real cause of a post-Thanksgiving-meal snooze, experts say.

Tryptophan is a component of the brain chemical serotonin, which gets converted into the well-known sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Poultry and many other foods also contain tryptophan, in similar amounts to that found in turkey. Gram for gram, cheddar cheese actually contains more tryptophan than turkey does. [Thanksgiving Gallery: 8 Fascinating Turkey Facts]

But tryptophan competes with all of the body's other amino acids to enter the brain, through a strict gatekeeper known as the blood-brain barrier. It's the heaps of carbohydrates &mdash the stuffing, potatoes and yams smothered in marshmallows &mdash that are the true problem, according to medical experts. Consuming carbs triggers the release of insulin, which removes most amino acids from the blood, but not tryptophan &mdash that dearth of competitors allows tryptophan to enter the brain and form serotonin and, ultimately, melatonin. (Melatonin can also be produced in the intestine, and a small amount of that may ultimately leak out into the bloodstream and end up in the brain, too.)

Basically, any big meal containing tryptophan and lots of carbohydrates can trigger sleepiness &mdash not just turkey. And on Thanksgiving, many other factors contribute to feelings of tiredness, such as drinking alcohol. The holidays are also a time when people often take a break from their hard work.

A Myth Examined: Can Turkey Make You Tired?

Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves have a way of becoming true.

Take the turkey-makes-you-sleepy tale. A quick survey of holiday travelers commuting through Washington's Union Station confirms the hunch that a lot of people cling to this myth.

"I think personal experience indicates, yes, it's true," says Catherine Newberry.

Her friend Robyn MacAdams agrees. "Eating a lot of turkey does seem to make people tired," she says.

But wait a second. Couldn't the Thanksgiving feast "gorge" factor explain the lethargy? This is Mary Ann Burke's theory.

"Anytime you fill your plate four times," Burke says, with a laugh, "you're going to fall asleep." Burke is in town from Winter Park, Fla., visiting her sister for the holiday.

Burke's too-many-calories theory is solid. Overeating makes you sluggish. When you add a little wine, the mood gets very mellow, very quickly.

So why, if the explanation is so simple, does the story that tryptophan, an amino acid found in turkey, makes people tired persist?

"I think it's based on a little correct information, but just misunderstood and misapplied," says Martha Stipanuk, a professor of molecular nutrition at Cornell University.

Tryptophan Explained

Everything from turkey to tofu, and dairy products to nuts — as well as virtually all meats — contain about 20 amino acids. One of these amino acids is tryptophan.

"There's nothing unique about turkey and its tryptophan content," says Stipanuk. It contains about as much as other meats. So, if there were a direct sleepy effect, we'd feel it with all protein.

Once tryptophan enters the body, it becomes the building block — or precursor molecule — of serotonin and melatonin. These are two brain compounds involved in regulating mood and sleep.

In laboratory studies, when scientists intentionally manipulate people's tryptophan levels by having them drink a specially formulated amino acid drink, they examine how tryptophan can alter sleep — and, perhaps, levels of cooperation, too.

In one study, the University of Oxford documented what happens when players engage in games of prisoner's dilemma. During the game, players can either compete with their opponent to try to win everything or, they can cooperate and divide the reward.

It turned out that tryptophan-deprived players were significantly less likely to cooperate. "I was surprised by the magnitude of the effect," says Robert Rogers, of Oxford's Department of Psychiatry.

Competing Amino Acids

When people take tryptophan supplements, the purified compound can get to the brain with relative ease.

But after a turkey feast, the tryptophan molecules are slowed down. They're, in essence, delivered to the body as part of a package with lots of competing amino acids.

"If you feed people a high protein diet, you don't get changes in brain tryptophan or serotonin," explains Stipanuk.

The reason? A traffic jam in crossing the blood-brain barrier. After a meal, all of the amino acids contained in protein-rich food are competing to get from the bloodstream to the brain. Think of it as a revolving door.

"If you're a tryptophan molecule, you want to get through that door," says Simon Young of McGill University in Montreal. But with lots of other amino acids competing, it takes you longer to get in.

Having heard the evidence, Robyn MacAdams, traveling through Union Station, has a different theory about one possible cause of the post-Thanksgiving feast letdown.

"Maybe it's because I'm around my family, so I just want to sleep," MacAdams says jokingly.

And social interactions around the holiday may trump specific chemical changes brought on by food.

"Here we are thinking that some substance is going to alter our destinies," says Christine DuBois of Johns Hopkins University. Instead, we need to realize that the way we treat people and interact with people is so paramount."

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