WILLIAMSBURG — Doug Young, Associate Professor of Chemistry at William & Mary, has a special lecture for his advanced biochemistry class each year as Thanksgiving approaches — the science behind the turkey-based food coma.
Thanksgiving prompts Young to give the lecture due to its association with food. Cooking is a form of chemistry, so it only makes sense to combine the two together.
According to the research, tryptophan is the primary amino acid behind the myth of turkey coma at thanksgiving. Biochemically, tryptophan is used to make serotonin, and ultimately, melatonin. If you have ever needed help sleeping at night, you might have grabbed melatonin tablets at the pharmacy.
The myth originates with the assumption that turkey contains a high quantity of tryptophan — and so that is what ultimately makes people so sleepy after eating. In fact, according to Young, turkey has less tryptophan present than the vegetables that are being consumed with it. Still, tryptophan is not the likely culprit for wanting to take a nice nap after Thanksgiving dinner.
“What’s actually happening is not that you’re eating a lot of tryptophan; it’s more that you’re eating a lot of food, and specifically carbohydrates,” Young explained in an interview with William & Mary.
“We have mechanisms in our bloodstream that help us detect how many carbohydrates or glucose is in our bloodstream so the cells can respond appropriately, he continues. “And so once you eat a big starchy meal, with potatoes and lots of the other good foods that come with Thanksgiving, then oftentimes you spike that blood glucose level. Then your body responds … but then, it over-responds. Consequently, you dip down from that glucose spike, and that’s when you feel the fatigue and enter into the ‘food coma’ that we oftentimes find ourselves in after a healthy Thanksgiving meal.”
For those interested in learning more about the science behind the food, the full interview with Young can be found on the William & Mary news page.
And Happy Thanksgiving from those of us here at WYDaily.