Happy Thanksgiving everyone, I hope you are enjoying your family gathering. I know many of you are dreading to meet the family and extended family to discuss about controversial topics and differences in opinion.
But the other big menace coming in, that is particularly feared by the Black Friday shoppers: “The Thanksgiving turkey comatose” myth. This myth is perpetuating the idea that the Thanksgiving feast will induce a lethargic state attributed to the tryptophan present in turkey. Lets use this time to talk about tryptophan, turkey and of course the BBB in all that.
1. What is tryptophan?
Tryptophan is one of the 22 amino acids forming the building bricks of each of our proteins. It belongs to one of the few amino acids that our body cannot produce and therefore has to get it from our food supply.
In addition to its role in proteins, tryptophan is also an interesting molecule for the central nervous system, because it serves as a precursor for serotonin (a neurotransmitter also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine) and melatonin (commonly known as the “clock hormone”). You can see the similarities in structure of these molecules below:
Tryptophan is particularly enriched in meat. According to the USDA, turkey meat contains the highest level of tryptophan from all foods, followed by white eggs, soybean and seaweeds. This partly support the claim of turkey being rich in tryptophan.
2. How does the tryptophan enters the central nervous system?
Like you expect, the blood-brain barrier is impermeable to any charged molecule. This is the case of many amino acids circulating in the blood (pH=7.4). Thus amino acids can enter the brain only by using special “revolving door” called solute carriers (SLCs). Tryptophan is transported by a particular amino acid transporter called large amino acid transporter 1 (LAT1). LAT1 is a particular transporter because it is formed by two subunits named SLC3A2 (also named CD98) and SLC7A5.
LAT1 is not specific to tryptophan, it also allows the transport of other aromatic amino acids like phenylalanine and tyrosine, but also chained amino acids such as leucine or arginine.
The impact of dysfunction in LAT1 remains poorly understood, however a study by Mykkaenen and colleagues noted several point mutations in SLC7A7 with a rare disease named lysinuric protein intolerance, a rare autosomal disease primarily described in patients from Finnish and Japanese origin marked by the impaired transport and elimination of basic amino acids following a protein-rich diet.
3. What is the function of tryptophan in the brain?
As I have previously mentioned, tryptophan is the precursor of two major neuromediators: serotonin and melatonin.
Serotonin is produced by a certain type of neurons named “serotoninergic neurons”. Like other neurons expressing a particular neurotransmitter other than glutamate or gamma-aminobutyrate (GABA), these neurons are restricted to a certain localization usually referred as “nucleus” (kernel, core). These neurons can project their axons all through the brain via a process called projections, allowing these neurons to interact with far-fetched neurons localized in a remote location.
In the case of serotoninergic (5-HT) neurons, these neurons are located in a structure called “raphe nucleus” and project to areas in which such neurotransmitter interact with 5-HT receptors. Through the interactions with the receptor, serotonin plays an important role in the modulation of several behavior including appetite, emotional (depression, anxiety), cognitive (schizophrenia) motor and autonomous (for instance emesis, the scientific term of “puking“).
In addition to the biological effects on the brain, the serotonin system is also linked to the circadian rhythm system (what we can call the “biological clock”) as depicted in the picture below:
We are diurnal animals as our main activity occurs during daylight and concludes with our sleep cycle during the dark period. In opposite, some animals like rodents are nychthemeral animals (active during dark phase and sleeping during daylight).
The light/dark cycle phase is determined by our eyes and retina. Such retina will transmit the presence of light to a particular nucleus named “suprachiasmatic nucleus” (SCN) . This nucleus is consisted by cells and nuclei functioning as oscillators. You can think about a pendulum in perpetual movement or a ticking clock. When darkness settles, the retina start to slowdown the information coming to the SCN.
In turn, the SCN becomes less active and relieve the blockade of the activity of the pineal gland. The pineal gland in turn start to secrete melatonin (aka the sleep hormone) that act as a “negative feedback loop” further shutting down the SCN and stimulate the production of serotonin via the raphe nucleus. All these events ultimately giving us the feeling of being sleepy and the process of sleeping.
4. So why we claim the “turkey comatose” is real?
As you can see in this myth, we are facing a post-hoc ergo fallacy. “I feel sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner. I ate large amount of turkey meat at Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey contains tryptophan and sleep is controlled by melatonin (a tryptophan derivative). Thus the tryptophan contained in the turkey meat is responsible of the food comatose”.
As you have seen, this does not make sense as the sleep/wake cycle is driven by the light exposure. This is also explaining partly why some people feel more tired and less motivated during winter times.
One explanation we can discuss is the particular food intake we all face during Thanksgiving that exceed our usual amount of food. We rarely experience such a feast and copious meal during the year. The table is furnished with so different plates, rich in proteins and carbohydrates.
This create a spike in food intake and food digestion that will likely create a urge of blood flow towards the gastrointestinal tract. This physiological phenomenon is named “postpandrial torpor”, making you feel sleepy and tired after a large meal, even if the meal was completely turkey-free.
So in conclusion, if you want to avoid “the turkey comatose”, don’t blame it on the turkey. Blame it on your eyes having a bigger appetite that your stomach can sustain. Keep it in moderation and now you know about the tryptophan transport at the BBB.