Friday, November 24, 2006

Got Brain Function?
Today is the Day After Thanksgiving

For the millions of Americans who have consumed at least one healthy serving of turkey in the last 24 hours, the common understanding is this: Turkey makes you sleepy. Perhaps even lethargic. All that turkey. On Thanksgiving.

“It’s the TRIP-TOE-FAN,” little Jimmy yells, a brain expert at age 10. But is it?

At the coffeehouse in North Beach this morning, I sipped my espresso and waited for that neural surge so familiar in my writer’s day. The surge was more like a dribble. I glanced across the table and asked Tom Whelan if he was “turkeyed out.”

Tom, the publisher of the North Beach Aquarium, said, “I do all right with the turkey. It’s the sugar that gets me.” He stared out the window at the sunlit sidewalk for a moment, looking a bit glazed. I appreciated that comment. It reminded me that I had consumed far more sugars and starches than turkey. What was the real impact of the tryptophan?

Tryptophan, or L-tryptophan, the amino acid we have come to know as the sleep agent in our holiday turkey, is the metabolic precursor of the neurotransmitter in our brains, serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for that sleepy feeling.

L-tryptophan is particularly plentiful in chocolate, oats, bananas, dates, milk, cottage cheese, peanuts and many meats including turkey, lamb, beef, and fish. In turkey, you’re getting about 100 mg of tryptophan per ounce of meat. And it’s the least abundant amino acid in the diet.

In order for the L-T to actually produce noticeable drowsiness, it would have to be taken on an empty stomach with no other proteins or amino acids. Not exactly the scenario most of us experienced yesterday.

Let’s look at what is actually happening. Think back, if you have enough neurons firing, to your consumption around the Thanksgiving meal. I’ll take a stab at an average picture of the day, with some details from my own experience. The group gathering for dinner brought in a few family recipes for side dishes and desserts, and maybe a fondly remembered cocktail or appetizer to boot. Appetizers include chips and salsa, two or three kinds of cheese, crackers, olives, some cut vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Start the festivities with a round of champagne. While we’re getting the serious meal ready, we’re having the equivalent of a light lunch along the way. Move from the champagne on to a couple of beers while watching a bit of football, and then it’s time to break out the wine. Our group enjoyed a drink we call “Passion Kitty,” made with vodka, soda, ginger ale, passion fruit juice and lime.

Then the serious feasting unfolds. Typical dishes alongside the beautifully roasted turkey are yams, mashed potatoes, stuffing, lots of gravy, cranberry in proximity to various concoctions of jello and whipped cream, any number of vegetable side dishes and salads, hot rolls with butter, and more wine. When you have ten or more items to “taste,” small servings don’t mean a whole lot. The plate weighs about two pounds. Stay seated.

After eating and drinking and “mmm-ing” for a couple of hours or more, the dishes are gathered from the table. People move slowly, holding bellies and groaning. Those family desserts are looming. “Not now,” the host says, heading for the recliner.

Yeah, that turkey sure has done a number on us.

I’m looking at the sugars I consumed yesterday. From the alcohol to the starchy carbs to the pure sugars, my blood glucose was at high tide. These sugars are what I’m feeling today. It’s a glucose hangover, plain and simple.

Enjoy your leftover turkey. You’re getting some good stuff with that tryptophan. Serotonin contributes to stable moods and contentment. Relax, digest, and melt into the relaxation with family and friends.

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