How Does Turkey Affect Your Brain? | Boulder Longevity Institute

The dishes are all washed and football is on the television. You prop your feet up on the coffee table (which you’ve been warned not to do) and suddenly your eyes feel too heavy to hold open. “It must be all the turkey,” you mumble to yourself as you drift off for one of the best naps of the year.

Well, next Thanksgiving you can wow your friends and family – while potentially staving off one of those awkward conversations Uncle Jim likes to start – with the truth about turkey. 

Turkey is not the culprit for the brain fog that overcomes you after the traditional Thanksgiving meal. It is true that L Tryptophan is present in turkey meat, much like it is in most meats. The amino acid is a precursor for serotonin, a monoamine neurotransmitter that can turn into melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone associated with regulating sleep and our circadian clock.

If turkey contains tryptophan, which is a precursor for serotonin, which can turn into melatonin, which is responsible for sleep, then the turkey must be the cause of Thanksgiving sleepiness! No. The simple truth is we cannot consume enough turkey to impact our melatonin levels to the point of making us sleepy.

The sleepy feeling you get is probably from the increased activity, typical holiday travel, extra carbohydrates in your food intake, and maybe that bottle of red wine you shared with Uncle Jim (which might also be the cause of those horrendous conversations mentioned earlier). 

If the new understanding that turkey is not causing your sudden desire to lay down was not enough to surprise you, how about some facts about the benefits our Thanksgiving turkey intake might be offering?

Turkey meat contains a fair amount of selenium. We understand that selenium helps the brain by reducing free radical damage, providing protection against oxidative stress that degrades brain cells, and offering a barrier against some of the mutations known to cause DNA damage. 

Our bird of choice for Thanksgiving dinners also contains tyrosine. This amino acid helps memory and cognitive performance. It is a precursor to dopamine, which we know helps our moods, attention spans, capacity for learning, and even emotional responses.

Zinc, popular for its immune boosting powers, is found in the meat of turkeys. It also has beneficial impacts like the neuroprotection provided by selenium. Zinc can also provide protection for nerve cells from damage.

Choline is a vital nutrient for brain function that we must obtain from our diets. Turkey is a great source of this precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is important for mental focus and the concentration to finally beat your cousins in Scrabble after dinner. 

Who knew the very turkey we thought was making us tired might actually be doing our bodies a little good? 

Keep in mind, just like you are unlikely to eat enough turkey to impact your melatonin levels, the serving size at Thanksgiving is also not likely to improve your overall health. Maybe that extra kick of choline is just enough to help with the Friday morning crossword puzzle.

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Published November 5, 2021
Categories: Brain Health

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