Can You Stay Awake During the Holidays?

organic-vegetables2Have you ever wondered if you would be able to stay awake after a big holiday dinner? You know what I’m talking about! You see the delicious food on the table, picture perfect for a few seconds, and then everyone dives in like a pack of wolves. Before you know it, the table looks like a disaster area after a construction crew successfully completed its demolition project. There are napkins, plates with food remnants, partially-empty glasses and forks, spoons and knives strewn all over the table—some on the floor. Then dessert makes an appearance, for which everyone stretches to make room. At the end of the night—after the guests have gone—the inevitable jumps in your face. Clean up! Maybe you’ll save that for the morning. “What was the name of that house-cleaning service, Honey?

This is a popular scene during this time of year. Even before the guests have gone, after the holiday dinner, everyone looks like they have taken sleeping pills and are ready for bed. Why do we get so sleepy? It feels like we are being drugged. Why is that? We often hear that it’s the turkey. I used to hear that all the time. I was in grade school and didn’t really care. I was just enjoying the company and the food and would have a really long weekend to play with my friends and eat leftovers from my favorite meal of the year.

Turkey always gets the blame for causing the holiday diners to go into a catatonic state. While it is true that turkey contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid, it is unfair to blame the poor turkey for “bringing down the house” to a loud snore. There are other reasons everyone has fallen out after eating this holiday meal.

Let’s look at the claim that the tryptophan in the turkey puts everyone to sleep. Tryptophan is a building block for protein and is used by our bodies to make serotonin, which is nicknamed “the feel-good hormone.” Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which promotes calm, relaxed behavior. This extremely important function is exploited by anti-anxiety/anti-depressant medications by blocking serotonin from being metabolized (broken down) by the liver. Stopping serotonin from being broken down keeps it in the body, which promotes relaxation. Tryptophan is also used to make melatonin, which is the “sleepy hormone.” Melatonin increases in our bodies when we are ready to go to sleep at bedtime. Melatonin is related to nightfall. When the light dims at sunset, melatonin increases to eventually instigate sleep. Some people take melatonin as a supplement to alleviate insomnia. Well, that’s it! Tryptophan, and therefore turkey, is at fault for everyone’s lethargy after a big holiday meal.

Not so fast! The recommended amount of tryptophan to help promote sleep is 500 to 1,000 milligrams, which is only a light nudging from the sleep fairy. A 4-ounce portion of turkey only contains 350 milligrams of tryptophan. High limits have been identified to be up to 15 times the recommended amount of tryptophan. This means that to knock you out on the couch, you would have to consume almost 11 pounds of turkey! Besides, there are a lot of foods that contain more tryptophan than turkey, and they don’t get blamed for causing unconsciousness during the rest of the year. Bacon, tofu, soybeans and mozzarella, parmesan and cheddar cheeses all have more tryptophan than turkey. Chicken and beef contain approximately the same amount of tryptophan as turkey, but I’ve never heard anyone say, “Boy, that chicken leg made me sleepy!”

Let’s go to Food Stuff to see what’s really going on at a holiday dinner and how to stay awake.

Food Stuff

Bottom line is that we eat too much, we drink too much and we don’t move around. High carbohydrate meals are the same as high sugar desserts and drinks and high-caffeinated drinks. You ride an energy high for a while, and then you crash. It just seems to be more accentuated over the holidays. Maybe because we get greedy and let our eyes rule our stomachs. We can use our heads to stop this cycle of eat-and-crash. Here are some strategies you can use to keep yourself awake for the fun and festivities:

  • Drink water to fill your stomach before you eat to allow less room for the food.  This is always a great strategy to reduce gorging.
  • Don’t fill your plate so that it looks like Mt. Rainier on steroids! Your stomach will expand to accommodate food only so far. Don’t worry! There will be another meal in the future. When you are stuffed like a turkey on Thanksgiving Day, then your body has work to do, but you can’t move to do it.
  • Don’t go for seconds. Filling your stomach until it hurts is a tradition, but it is not healthy.  We are not chipmunks, squirrels or bears, hibernating for the winter, even though we think we are.  Instead, put the food you are going to eat for dinner on your plate, being mindful of dessert.
  • Eat fewer high glycemic foods, such as starchy fare like potatoes, pasta, dinner rolls, stuffing and rice and sugary foods like candied yams and dessert. These foods raise your blood sugar level higher and longer than low glycemic foods. And you know what happens when you get off of that sugar rush—Crash! If you eat the yams (same as sweet potatoes) with less sugar, they do not make you want to sleep like white potatoes do.  In cooking, you can add spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves to reduce the amount of sugar you add to the food.
  • Eat more vegetables. Americans typically don’t eat enough vegetables, which are rich in nutrients and low on the glycemic scale. Unless they are drenched with lots of butter or sugar or dressing, then eating more will help keep your waistline down as well as keep you awake.
  • Drink less alcohol. Alcohol is high in sugar, and the alcohol acts as a sedative. I haven’t heard anyone say that the wine or the Peppermint Schnapps knocked them out on Thanksgiving.
  • Take a walk.  Getting your circulation going and more oxygen in your blood helps keep you awake. Walk for about 30 minutes after dinner. It will burn some of those calories and help lower your blood sugar level.

I hope these were helpful. Stay awake and enjoy your company and your dinner.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

In Good Food We Trust,





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Renee Paden About Renee Paden

Renée graduated with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University in 2010, after over 20 years in the IT corporate world. Her first nutrition teacher was her grandmother, who showed her how to prepare a balanced plate. Renée spent hours in the kitchen with her grandmother, learning the importance of our relationship with food. She wants everyone to understand how urgent it is for our families to appreciate real food. Our lives depend on it, literally.

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