Dear world, turkey coma is not a thing. Sincerely, science.

December 23, 2021

Not everyone has turkey for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but we do.

This would not happen if it was my job to roast the turkey. I’ve never roasted anything as big as a turkey. I occasionally try to roast a chicken, but I usually do them with fingerling potatoes and a side of salmonella. I mean, not on purpose or anything because salmonella is not delicious, but somehow I can never get my roast chickens to cook through all the way through and I end up having to finish them in the microwave. Which is not something you can really do with a 20-pound turkey.

Anyway, my husband roasts the turkeys. I eat them, then pass out on the couch.

Colloquially, this is called a “turkey coma.” Most people blame it on the tryptophan, which is an amino acid found in turkey that human bodies find useful. Our bodies use it behind the scenes to make serotonin and melatonin, two molecules that have important functions in the brain. Serotonin influences mood and behavior; notably, melatonin influences the sleep-wake cycle.

A serving of turkey contains about 200 milligrams of tryptophan, so that and its connection to the sleep-wake cycle makes it an obvious suspect for inducing turkey coma. But the accusation is misplaced.

It’s not his fault.

Turkey doesn’t contain any more tryptophan than other meats do. In fact, if dietary tryptophan really did cause food comas, then we should all be food coma-ing all over the place, all the time, because other foods have even more tryptophan than turkey does.

Drink one cup of milk and you get 183 milligrams of tryptophan. Add a tuna sandwich with its 1,180 milligrams of tryptophan and that should be enough to knock you out for a few days. But have you ever heard anyone say, “Oh, I can’t get up I’m about to slip into a tuna sandwich coma?” No. Because it’s not the tryptophan.

Ultimately, the reason why you fall into a deep sleep after your Christmas turkey is because you pigged out, you had a half glass of wine more than you should have, and your body is naturally rebelling against that massive pile of dishes in the kitchen that you know you’re going to have to deal with at some point.


(Featured photo “Roast Turkey” by SliceOfChic is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)