There’s the turkey / drowsiness myth: Eating lots of juicy turkey meat makes people feel tired because it contains an amino acid called tryptophan. This molecule travels into the brain, where it is converted into a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which in turn is converted into a hormone called melatonin. Voila! Sleepiness.
This tryptophan / mood compound is an area of ongoing research. And while some are fascinated by the potential of tryptophan, it is not clear if the excitement is justified.
Looking for a tryptophan link to mood
There is some scientific evidence that eating tryptophan can change your mood.
So what explains the mixed results?
Serotonin itself still holds mysteries
This non-specificity is therefore, in my opinion, hard to believe SSRIs work at all. Here’s an analogy: Let’s say you’re Jeff Bezos and you want to increase Amazon’s revenue by speeding up your deliveries. So you decide to screw up all delivery vehicles. From now on, each truck will increase its speed by 5%. It could be a logistical stroke of genius, or it could, perhaps more likely, end in chaos. Like increasing serotonin throughout the brain, this blunt approach may not be ideal.
More chemical fine-tuning for mood
When it comes to understanding the connections between gut bacteria and the brain, or the greater challenge of understanding and treating mental illness, should researchers really still think about tryptophan?
Serotonin, which is apparently full of psychiatric possibilities, has long fascinated psychiatric researchers. But what the last half century seems to have shown is that the neuroscience of human emotion is not simple. To promote lasting change in mental health, scientists may need a little more reverence for the complex emotional beings that we all are.
So no, a big turkey dinner, as full of delicious tryptophans as it may be, will probably not be the neurochemical driving force for your Thanksgiving mood.
Andrew Neff is an adjunct faculty member in psychology at Rochester University in New York. Neff does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations other than their academic appointment.
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