The Debunker: Ken Jennings vs. Sleep Myths, Part 4

by Ken Jennings

Everything you know is wrong! Each week, we ask writer and Jeopardy! ace Ken Jennings to tear down one of the lies that they teach us in school, man. All month long, Ken's been exposing common misconceptions about sleep. Now that he's taken on the fourth one below, look for him again in two weeks with part one of September's debunkmentations.

Sleepy Myth #4: Turkey Makes Me So Drowsy

No, it doesn’t! Well, I guess it does if you eat enough of it, but it doesn’t make you especially drowsy the way that recycled local-morning-show pieces claim every Thanksgiving.

It’s easy to see how this myth started: who doesn’t feel a little sleepy after a big holiday dinner? And turkey is a source of tryptophan, an amino acid that was once prescribed as a sleep aid because the body metabolizes it into serotonin. But here’s the problem: turkey contains roughly the same amount of tryptophan per ounce that other meats do, and less than cheese and some fish. It contains much less than the dosage once given to insomniacs—which, in any case, was shown to have effect only when taken on an empty stomach. Thanksgiving dinner is pretty much the opposite of “an empty stomach.”

Here’s a partial list of other things that are more likely to cause a holiday nap than a few hundred milligrams of tryptophan:

  • Ingesting a carbohydrate-rich stuffing/potato/gravy mass the size of a volleyball alongside your turkey.
  • Watching another Lions or Cowboys snoozer on a comfy couch.
  • Pretending to agree with the appalling political opinions of the relative you are seated next to.
  • Drinking enough glasses of wine to make it through said conversation without throwing a punch at said relative.
  • Did I mention that you just ate enough carbohydrates to feed a small Caribbean nation for a week? Also, there’s pie later.

With all that in mind, the turkey could be laced with Seconal and it wouldn’t make a difference. You’d be out cold anyway.

Quick quiz: A female turkey is called a hen, of course. What’s a male called?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and the forthcoming Maphead. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo by Flickr user TurkZilla, used under a Creative Commons license.