Ah, Thanksgiving. The day we all tighten the grip on our forks and loosen the drawstrings on our pants. We celebrate the proverbial harvest and bounty of the year by stuffing our faces with a cornucopia of turkey, casseroles, and desserts. And we do it all together with our family and friends. Just like the Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe back in 1621 who started it all. Almost as fundamental to the holiday as the turkey and the Pilgrims themselves is that sneaky but inevitable post-feast nap. It never fails, and we just accept it. But have you ever wondered why you need a nap after Thanksgiving dinner?
I know, I know. We’ve all heard it’s the tryptophan in the turkey that’s the culprit. Even Seinfeld said so back in that one episode in 1997. So it has to be true…right!? Well, not necessarily. The myth of the turkey being a lone harbinger of naps has already been busted by multiple sources. So if it’s not the turkey, what’s making you so reliably fall asleep like clockwork on this day every year? Because not long after that second helping of green bean casserole, we all definitely feel it.
Most researchers agree that it’s not just one thing, but a few factors combined about how we celebrate this day that bring on that telltale post-feast snooze.
Here are some of the reasons why you need a nap after Thanksgiving dinner.
To figure out why you need a nap after Thanksgiving dinner, let’s go ahead and start with the turkey. As we all know, turkey contains a significant amount of the amino acid tryptophan. But turkey actually doesn’t have any more tryptophan than other poultry and a few other common foods. So what’s the deal?
Tryptophan is an amino acid that has a soporific effect on the brain. But the presence of other amino acids (which turkey also has) blocks this effect. So the turkey itself can’t make you sleepy. However, when you eat carbs, insulin is released into the bloodstream. The insulin lowers all the amino acid levels in your blood – all except Tryptophan. This leaves the tryptophan available to your brain to convert into serotonin, which makes you sleepy.
So all those carbs and sides are the key that unlocks the sleep-inducing qualities of the turkey. It’s not just the turkey that’s to blame. It has to be a team effort.
Another one of the major culprits involved in why you need a nap after Thanksgiving dinner is the carbohydrates themselves. People generally eat an outrageous 560 grams of carbs on Thanksgiving.
Simple carbs, which make up most of a standard Thanksgiving meal, have a high glycemic index. This means they absorb more quickly into the bloodstream as sugar than complex carbs. So eating lots of simple carbs all at once causes a spike in blood sugar levels. This spike prompts the promotion of insulin to shuttle that sugar out of the blood to use in the cells as fuel. This helps normalize blood sugar levels. It also gives you a quick boost of energy, but the boost is quickly followed by a very recognizable crash.
Tryptophan and carbs aside, another reason why you need a nap after Thanksgiving Dinner is the overeating and enormous quantities ingested. On average, Americans eat around 3,000 to 4,500 calories just on Thanksgiving. That’s two days’ worth of food.
As the food is being digested, more blood is shunted to the stomach and gut to help transport the newly digested nutrients. This leaves less blood for the brain, which makes you feel tired. And overeating just increases this digestive process, making you even more sleepy than normal.
So with every second helping you pile onto your plate, you’re also adding fuel to your inevitable nap.
Another contributing factor for why you need a nap after Thanksgiving dinner is alcohol.
Family dynamics can get tense sometimes, especially if you’re all talking about politics. So you might be reaching for an extra glass of wine along with that extra helping of mashed potatoes.
Alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system. Its relaxing sedative effect makes you feel drowsy.
So if you’re kicking back a couple of beers while you eat turkey and watch the Cowboys lose, it’s probably just speeding up your need for that nap.
Other factors contributing to why you need a nap after Thanksgiving dinner are linked to just the holiday itself. Things like holiday travel, the stress of preparations, and staying up later than usual to spend time with family all accumulate to that Thanksgiving Day fatigue.
Over 50 million Americans have to travel to a destination around the Thanksgiving holiday. Whether you are flying, driving, or just riding along, travel wears out the body and can upset sleep cycles. The small movements and speed changes that happen on a long journey cause your brain and muscles to constantly work. And that keeps you from really resting. So if you’ve just traveled, as many do, that is another factor contributing to your oncoming nap.
Plenty of things can cause stress on Thanksgiving. Family relationship dynamics, politics, and just the meal preparations themselves. All that stress takes a physical and emotional toll on the body which can result in fatigue. And all of that is heightened on the big day itself.
Thanksgiving Day brings together family and friends we may not have seen since last Thanksgiving. So there is a lot of catching up to do, and our social capacities run at full speed. There are group activities, day trips, and late nights spent staying up and giggling with your favorite aunt. So everyone’s usually running on less-than-full nights of sleep. And that coffee on Thanksgiving Day morning will begin wearing off after the big meal, letting the drowsiness set in.
Clearly, there are several factors involved in why you need a nap after Thanksgiving dinner. The travel, stress of preparation, family dynamics, late nights, alcohol, and the specific combinations and quantities of the meal itself. And it all accumulates on Thanksgiving Day, after the finality of your last bite of pie.
There are dozens of recipes being thrown around that day. But the sneakiest recipe comes from the way we celebrate this holiday every year. The list of ingredients all mixes to perfection to bake up a very reliable, and very satisfying nap.
But along with all the other traditions surrounding Thanksgiving, it’s almost become a tradition itself to give the turkey all the credit when you feel those first somnolent tugs. So even though I’m an adult, on Christmas Day you can’t tell me there’s no Santa Claus. And on Thanksgiving Day, it’s definitely just the turkey’s fault that I always fall asleep after pie.
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