It's not (just) the turkey making you sleepy on Thanksgiving

SPRINGFIELD You've just finished your delicious Thanksgiving turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Now you're relaxing on the couch with friends and relatives watching football on television, and the next thing you know is you're waking up having just missed the big play of the game.

"It's natural for many people to experience sleepiness after indulging in a heavy meal, especially after your Thanksgiving dinner," said Dr. Karin Johnson, a sleep specialist in the Neurology Division at Baystate Medical Center.

But don't be too quick to blame the turkey.

"It's a myth that turkey causes sleepiness due to the tryptophan it contains. Tryptophan doesn't get to the brain unless it is eaten on an empty stomach and even if it gets to the brain, it is in too low of a concentration to have any major effect on the brain," Dr. Johnson said.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a natural sedative. It works by helping the body make niacin which then helps to make serotonin which assists in relaxation and is necessary for sleep.

"What really is thought to happen on Thanksgiving is that the high carbohydrate load and the large calorie intake of all the potatoes, pies, stuffing and other vegetables causes our insulin levels to increase and that leads to an increase in tryptophan in the brain resulting in sleepiness," Johnson said.

The Baystate Medical Center sleep specialist noted alcohol is another major sedative adding to sleepiness on Thanksgiving day, as well as just relaxing and sitting around watching television which further adds to the sleepiness.

"On top of all of those contributors, many people are already sleep deprived to begin with, further adding to their sleepiness on Thanksgiving," said Dr. Johnson, who noted most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night to feel alert and well-rested.

What can you do to help keep away Thanksgiving tiredness and help avoid the holiday weight gain?

"Try to limit alcohol and total calories and eat more low-glycemic index foods, and go for a brisk walk after dinner," Johnson said.

High glycemic index foods such as white bread, pasta, potatoes, soft drinks and ice cream have much more sedative effects than low glycemic index foods such as beans, wheat, bran, rye and whole grain foods. This is because low glycemic index foods release sugar into the bloodstream more slowly, so insulin levels increase more slowly resulting in less tryptophan.

Baystate Medical Center's Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Center and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine offer the following additional tips on how to get a good night's sleep whether Thanksgiving or any day:

Do not go to bed hungry, but don't eat a big meal before bedtime either.

Avoid alcohol, food or drinks that contain caffeine, and any medicine that has a stimulant prior to bedtime

Follow a consistent bedtime routine.

Establish a relaxing setting at bedtime.

Get a full night's sleep every night.

Avoid any rigorous exercise within two hours of your bedtime.

Make your bedroom quiet, dark and a little bit cool.

Get up at the same time every morning.

More than half of all Americans suffer from some form of sleep disorder. Sleep needs depend on many factors, including age. Baystate Medical Center's Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Center provides the latest high-technology testing and diagnosis for all types of sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, snoring and sleepwalking.

For more information about the Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Center, call Baystate's HealthLink at 794-2255.


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