Thanksgiving Health Risks

There can be many reasons to drift off on Thanksgiving Day, but eating turkey isn’t really one of them.

The amino acid L-tryptophan in turkey is popularly cited as a kind of dietary sedative, but nutritionist Samantha Heller lays bare the urban myth.

“L-tryptophan is the chemical precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, a calming agent in the brain,” says Heller.

“Eating foods that contain tryptophan therefore can increase serotonin and, in some instances, make you sleepy. But tryptophan only has a noticeable ‘sleepy’ effect if it is taken on an empty stomach [unlikely at Thanksgiving!] with no other protein in the meal. Post-dinner lethargy is more likely due to too much food, alcohol or Uncle George’s 400th telling of the time he almost fell in a sink hole.”

L-tryptophan is also found in eggs, milk, bananas and yogurt—and you don’t see people eating healthy breakfasts and then passing out in a Barcalounger.

Drinking and overeating are more likely to make you sleepy.

Heller notes that knocking back an extra glass of wine can make people feel tired, though alcohol ultimately disturbs various phases of sleep; you might nod off early, but you’re more likely to be sleepless later in the night.

It’s the type of food we eat at Thanksgiving—and the sheer volume of it—that finds us struggling to stay awake for pumpkin pie.

“It takes a great deal of energy to digest a large meal,” explains Sari Greaves, a registered dietician with New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

“When your stomach is full, blood is directed away from other organ systems to your digestive system. Since you have less blood flow elsewhere, you will feel the need to snooze after any big meal, particularly if it is high in fat.

“Secondly,” she continues, “a traditional Thanksgiving meal is heavy and high in carbohydrates, from the mashed potatoes to the bread stuffing and pie. A carbohydrate-rich [as opposed to protein-rich] meal increases production of the sleep-promoting chemical serotonin in the brain.”

If you’re going to drink, it’s best to eat first.

Drinking booze on an empty stomach will get you drunk faster, as any cheap date will attest. But it’s a good idea to have eaten something before drinking since food will slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. Drinking lowers your inhibitions, making you more prone to opening your mouth to either say something stupid or to insert more food than your body needs. Furthermore, at least one study has suggested that drinking alcohol without eating raises the chance of developing high blood pressure.

Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t have to be a fat fest.

A number of sensible tips, as suggested by dietician Greaves, can make for a healthier Thanksgiving turkey. Buy skinless turkey, or remove the skin, to cut total fat and saturated fat in half. Eat the white meat, since roasted, skinless white meat has far less fat than dark meat. Also, self-basting turkeys are higher in fat and sodium, so baste the turkey yourself with broth, juice, or juices from the bird. And, if you can resist it, don’t overeat.

Families can celebrate … and aggravate.

Gathering loved ones in joyous celebration is a quaint and cozy notion, but tensions sometimes run high when families are confined to one small, shared space for a long day. Margo Napoletano, a clinical psychologist in private practice in the San Diego area, suggests a three-tiered approach to keeping your hands around the drumstick instead of a relative’s neck.

“One pointer I offer families at this time of year is to keep a sense of balance and moderation—not too much turkey, not too much shopping, not too much football on TV,” says Napoletano. “Too much of anything leads to a negative experience. Second is to have a strategy for getting some personal space—a ‘time out’ from family togetherness, which can be particularly important in families with a lot of conflict or tension.

“Third is thinking ahead about what role you want to have in the family gathering; whether it’s to make it a pleasant, joyful day of family togetherness or whether you want to save time to address some particular issue,” she continues. “I encourage family members to make it a holiday, and enjoy it in a positive way rather than go into deep-seeded family issues.”

Accident rates soar at the holidays.

Other than overeating or choking Uncle George, the serious health hazards around Thanksgiving revolve around the trip home. In 2005, there were more alcohol-related traffic fatalities (628) over the Thanksgiving holiday than over Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Christmas, or New Year’s Day.

Don’t drink and drive, and don’t let anyone leave your house under the influence. Be thankful for your health and enjoy the holiday.