Rene Miller is an award-winning fantasy football author… who is also a neuroscientist. Her weekly Survivor Picks and “Brain Games” fantasy columns are insightful, unique must-reads.
To her credit, she’s diving into “Your Mind Turkey” — a slight departure from fantasy and betting, but relevant, nonetheless. Enjoy!
Being a neuroscientist, it’s natural for me to gravitate toward the mundane. Faithful “Jeopardy!” A viewer since high school, I have also enjoyed “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, “The Chase” and “The Wall” over the years. Someone on “The Wall” recently missed a question about an old anti-drug campaign: “This is your brain (shows an unbroken egg). This is your brain on drugs (shows an egg frying in a pan). She’s the food item in the ad from the scrambled egg. She thought it was a melting ice cream cone instead.
Around here, we’re more interested in understanding your brain on fantasy football. With Thanksgiving around the US, I thought it would be fun to explore the mind on turkey rather than football.
You probably already know the Turkish myth that makes you tired. It had a logical basis for the story, but not an experimental one. Turkey, like all protein sources (including plants), contains the amino acid tryptophan. It doesn’t contain as much tryptophan as other proteins, so the focus on turkey, the culprit for Thanksgiving sleep, is already off to a rocky start. The myths continue by accepting that tryptophan, known for its role in mood disorders such as major depressive disorder (MDD), is a precursor to the neuromodulator serotonin – this story is not as simple as it often seems – and as a reason for satisfaction.
Serotonin is released when the body senses that it has eaten a nutritious meal. From humans to simple invertebrates, the release of serotonin is inhibited by extra food. Whether you’re stuffing a salad or a cheeseburger, it’s definitely no different for turkey or Thanksgiving. The number of calories many Americans eat on Thanksgiving is enough to make you feel full, so don’t blame the turkey alone!
Going back to the sleep claims, serotonin is part of a group of neuromodulators like dopamine and norepinephrine that are used the most when we’re awake, but levels drop significantly as we go to sleep. So, while our holiday meals are prompting our brains to produce more serotonin, they can also help us wake up and wake up.
But there is a part of the brain that can convert serotonin into melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone produced by the pineal gland. This aspect is a big part of the “Turkey sleeps” myth. Melatonin is produced on a circadian rhythm, peaking 3-4 hours before we go to bed. (By the way, any over-the-counter sleep specialist will tell you that you need to take it a few hours before your intended bedtime to be effective. Individuals are pretty steady, meaning a big meal doesn’t send us into melatonin overload and we can’t keep our eyes open. From the relationship between tryptophan and serotonin In contrast, baseline serotonin levels are not the limiting factor in melatonin production.
Science has a few possibilities for what drives the food coma. Carbohydrate load beyond normal, too many carbohydrates in the form of simple sugars lead to insulin spikes and sugar crashes, lack of sleep due to travel or an unfamiliar home, drinking alcohol, and the blood is diverted further into our digestive tract. (and the release of some digestive hormones) are reasonable suspects.
Strategies to avoid the panic include portion control (yes, right), delaying dessert an hour or two, and retreating to the couch after meals. Helping with the dishes, playing with the kids, or going for a walk provides more energy than slumping in an easy chair and a faster recovery from a big meal. Let me assure you, you can Stand up and watch a Dallas game after dinner, and if you do, you’ll be more likely to stay awake when you finally sit down to watch the Niers and the Seahawks.
As scientists strive to learn more about how our diet affects brain health and disease, the news about commonly eaten Thanksgiving foods is mostly positive. Turkey provides a lean source of protein, including tryptophan and another important neurotransmitter precursor, choline. Sweet potatoes, yams, and pumpkins are rich in vitamin A, manganese, potassium, and copper, and they’re also rich in fiber, which helps counteract the sugar high and subsequent crash (if you don’t spoil it with marshmallows or something similarly sweet). Cranberries are rich in antioxidants, as are apples and other colorful berries used in pies. In addition, apples promote good cardiovascular health, limiting the risk of stroke.
Experts now say we should eat it as often as Thanksgiving. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t feel the urge to binge every year. Of course, the things I crave most for seconds — stuffing and any other kind of gravy vehicle — don’t make the healthy list. I say to myself, “You know what else is good for your brain health? Practicing delayed gratification and self-control. I’m a chef, so I have leftovers for days.
The last benefit you can take to the dinner table? Your Athletics subscription not only gives you the advice you need to get the all-important Week 12 football win, but also something to talk about with a Thanksgiving guest who isn’t a fantasy football nut. Every family has one, bless them.
Enjoy the big day, and next week, I’ll be back to tackle tougher fantasy resolutions than turkey problems.
(Top photo: Nick Antaya / Getty Images)