A traditional Thanksgiving is often filled with parades, football, long travel commutes, and sharing time with relatives and friends -- all culminating with a great feast in reflection of giving thanks.
It’s this great feast – including a day of snacking and hors d'oeuvres, followed by a large dinner and dessert, with coffee and/or alcohol – that can lead to big sleep problems later, says Sigrid C. Veasey, MD, professor of Medicine and member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology.
“This food coma phenomenon that people may experience after Thanksgiving dinner is real,” says Veasey. “What you’re eating is actually inducing inflammatory proteins known as cytokines and other substances produced in the body in response to this mega meal that can make you tired.”
But it’s not what you might think: The popular belief that turkey’s tryptophan, a naturally occurring amino acid, makes people sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner is simply not true.
“Studies show tryptophan does increase natural, deep sleep,” said Veasey. “However, you would have to eat far more tryptophan than anyone could consume in one meal to get that sleep-inducing effect.”
Veasey suggests the large consumption of simple carbohydrates and fats is often the culprit, including mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, and other side courses. Large portions of these foods can raise insulin levels and change the amounts of leptin (a hormone regulating fat) and ghrelin (which regulates hunger and energy) in the body which can disrupt our sleep later or make us sleepy earlier.
Beyond human health, the meal can make us ill-prepared to handle other aspects of the weekend.
“If you have been working all day traveling to get to Thanksgiving dinner, you’re coming into it a little sleep deprived like a lot of people do, and on top of that you may be having alcohol and a high carb, high fat meal that can make you more impaired for that drive home.”
The traditional Thanksgiving dinner can offer the right nutrients for healthy sleep, but consuming larger portions of food coupled with excessive drinking can lead to poor sleep.
“Alcohol makes you sleepy and you fall asleep sooner, but it is terrible for sleep in the sense that you don’t get into the deeper stages, and you don’t get into rapid eye movement and end up missing some of the best part of sleep,” says Veasey. “That’s why a lot of people feel sleepy the next day.”
Being sleepy the next day can be especially troublesome for the millions of Americans who participate in ‘Black Friday’ shopping each year.
“Many of these individuals have been up all night, forcing themselves to stay awake after a giant meal, maybe having problems with reflux, or having trouble sleeping, and suddenly they’re going to shop at 3 a.m.,” Veasey says.
Veasey suggests simply staying home and enjoying the holiday.
“When you haven’t had great quality sleep, the prefrontal cortex in the front of the brain goes cold and doesn’t function well, so you’re picking up things you can’t quickly figure out,” said Veasey. “’Is that what I should get for so and so?’ and ‘Oh, but if I get this, then how will it work with this present,’ or Have I gotten even numbers of presents for different kids?’, and so on. You’re much better off just sleeping in.”
This year, we’re offering two suggestions for our readers looking to get a good night’s sleep:
1). Eat your normal Thanksgiving dinner this year and be mindful of your portions. You will feel better afterward and more able to enjoy the holiday.
2). Skip the early outings for ‘Black Friday’ shopping and reap the benefits of a little extra sleep.
“The number one rule of Thanksgiving is enjoy family,” says Veasey. “The number two rule is get home safely. Sleep plays a big part in achieving both.”