5 Foods making you feel sleepy this festive season

November 26, 2020 9 mins read
5 Foods making you feel sleepy this festive season

It’s the time of year where our normal healthy food choices seem to get the boot and are replaced by warm, hearty, carby, sugary comfort foods that are synonymous with mum’s homemade touch. We’ve swapped our usual eating times with long lazy lunches, and upped our portion sizes, with a side of jingle juice.

So it’s no wonder when you’ve polished off another serving of pumpkin pie that you’re ready to snooze, even though it’s only 3pm.

But why do we feel this way? What are the causes of feeling sleepy after eating? Well, tryptophan (and your mood) might be to blame.

What is tryptophan?

L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid that the body can’t make, so it relies on your diet to supply it. Tryptophan is used by the body to make a B vitamin (niacin) that is important for digestion, skin and nerves, and serotonin (our mood chemical that helps us feel relaxed).

Without tryptophan, our body can’t produce serotonin, and without serotonin, we can’t produce melatonin, the hormone that helps to control your sleep and wake cycles. Simply put, when you eat foods that are high in tryptophan, your body receives the signals it needs to snooze.

5 Festive season foods that make you sleepy

You know the feeling, it’s a wave of tiredness that makes your eyelids droop and brain fade… but what exactly on your plate was to blame for your sleepiness? Often we’re piling our plates with foods rich in melatonin (whereas these would be fine to eat at dinner time when we need sleep, we’re giving our body the false start to sleep at lunchtime). These foods include walnuts, almonds, tomatoes, mustard seeds, tart cherries and more.

But it’s not just food that’s causing us to claw for the bedroom door. It’s our moods too. As we wind down the year and start to relax, our nervous systems can slow down, and all that “coping” is finally swapped for sleep. The moment we’re able to sit back and relax, mixed with all the melatonin, tryptophan sleep-inducing foods, we’re definitely going to feel the effects of heavy eyelids.

Take a look at what’s on the sleepy-making menu:

1. Turkey

Turkey has a high source of tryptophan, but it’s not solely to blame for putting you in a food coma. Food is made up of proteins that when eaten together, can either react to give us energy or put us to sleep. During Thanksgiving and Christmastime, we tend to eat a lot of foods that will pull down our eyelids rather than boost our energy levels, particularly the turkey, yams and pumpkin pie combination. The combined effect of eating turkey with all the other carby foods can put your body into digestive stress, slowing down your energy levels and making you want to snooze.

2. Pumpkin pie

Pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin-spiced everything… you may be surprised to learn that pumpkins can be a sleep aid. Pumpkin seeds are loaded with magnesium, tryptophan and zinc. Zinc which helps your body to convert tryptophan into serotonin and give you all the relaxing feels. When you add in all the sugar and carbs that are involved in pumpkin pie, you release insulin, which frees up too much tryptophan in the brain, making you sleepy. Simply put, a sugar crash.

3. Eggnog

Nightcaps are what the festive season is about right? Especially eggnog. This rich and creamy drink is made up of egg yolk (which is part of the tryptophan-releasing food groups), cream and a dash of brandy, cognac, bourbon, whiskey, sherry or rum (whatever flavour floats your jingle juice boat). This combination is the perfect recipe for sleep.

4. Cheese platter

It’s the start of your festive season luncheons, and the cheese platters are rolled out in abundance. But beware, cheese (especially softer cheese like gouda, mozzarella and camembert) contains a lot of tryptophan. Because you’re definitely going to be loading your plate with warm home-made bread as well, mixing tryptophan-rich foods with carb-rich foods (that produce serotonin) can turn the lights off before you can say “cheese!”.

5. Sweet potato

Festive season food basically means carbs and turkey. And because these are both full of sleep-inducing tryptophan goodness, you guessed it; these cause post-lunch fatigue. Even though you can’t eat enough turkey on its own to make you fall asleep in a wink, its effects are multiplied when you bring carbs into the mix. Foods with a higher glycemic index (potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie) increase the production of insulin, allowing the effects of tryptophan to be absorbed and bring on the z’s.

5 Ways to avoid a food coma

The truth is food comas or feeling sleepy after you’ve eaten caused by overeating and ingesting too many carb-rich foods and jingle juice in one festive meal. As we load up on heavy carbs and high-fat foods, we put our body through some major digestive work. It takes a great deal of energy to digest a large meal, particularly when your stomach is full. When your body is digesting food, it directs your blood flow away from other organ systems, including your nervous system, resulting in the sap of energy.

But we get it; it can be hard to say no when you’ve got a festive season spread begging to be tasted (plus you’ve put on your stretchy pants.) That’s why we’ve put together 5 simple ways to help avoid that food coma, so you can go on and enjoy your festive foods, guilt-free (and sleep when you want to).

1. Keep regular mealtimes

You may think that skipping meals in preparation for Thanksgiving lunch or Christmas dinner will allow you to eat more with less guilt, but unfortunately, this is the leading cause of food comas. Eating regularly throughout the day even before a big lunch or dinner will help curb those cravings and allow you to recognize when you’re full and to stop you from reaching for that second serving.

Also, try to plan your big feasts a few hours ahead of bedtime so that you allow your body to fully digest it’s food before you sleep. If you’ve got a big dinner planned, try pick foods that are good for sleep so that when you’re eating you’re eating consciously for sleep too.

2. Portion control

It takes the brain 20 minutes to register that the stomach is full, so if you feel you’ve overdone the portion size, pace yourself to allow your brain to signal when it’s time to stop. We know that there are amazing new flavours to indulge in over the holidays, but rather ask for a takeaway and relive the flavoursome moments the next day.

3. Manage your stress levels

Stress makes you consume more; it’s just a fact of modern life. And what’s more stressful than the lead-up to the holiday? Going home to see family and sleeping in an unfamiliar bed or entertaining houseguests and making sure you’ve ticked off all the deadline boxes… it’s all quite exhausting. So it’s no wonder that as soon as the drinks trolley has pulled up and your plate is full of turkey, stuffing, carbs and the entire gravy boat that your body kicks into sleep mode as you’ve finally permitted it to relax. Curb stress eating by getting enough sleep and practising regular stress-reducing exercises before the holidays hit.

4. Easy on the alcohol

What may seem like a good idea to get that conversation going, might see you end up losing concentration and dreaming of nap-ville. Alcoholic beverages, whether they are wine, beer, spirits or cocktails, are carbohydrate-based. Not only are they able to bring on the yawns (only momentarily, as alcohol can make it hard to stay asleep), but they can mask your fullness, leading you into a food coma. Sip on carbonated or still water during your meal to help pace your food (and jingle juice) intake.

5. Get moving

Whether it’s a post-lunch neighbourhood walk with your family or that you walked home instead of taking a taxi after Christmas dinner, get your body moving to help digest your food and re-energize yourself. Keeping a simple exercise regime during the holidays will help keep your body in shape and also give you the motivation to practice that portion control.

Prioritise sleep over the festive season

During the festive season, it can be hard to maintain a proper sleep schedule, let alone keep a healthy diet. But eating the correct foods, at the correct time with sleep-assisting ingredients can help you get through the festive season healthier, more rested and without the need to constantly reach for energy in sugary foods.

Simple adjustments to your daily menu to help you get better festive season sleep:

  • No more sugary cereal. Try a whole-grain alternative, topped with milk and a sliced banana.
  • Eat tryptophan foods (eggs, white meats, nuts, dairy) closer to bedtime. Even though you’re going to find these types of foods during Thanksgiving lunches, try to keep these proteins for bedtime only. You don’t want a false start on your snooze time.
  • Switch the carbs to wholegrain and combine with tryptophan foods. This way you’ll get the benefits of this amino acid as it turns into melatonin.
  • Digest then rest. Eat your meals with some time to spare before bed to allow your body to digest the food. You’ll also be pleasantly surprised that when your body is digesting you’ll feel the need to go to sleep. It’s a perfect way to bring on the z’s.

If you need some festive season food inspiration, try our all-in-one chicken, squash & new potato casserole recipe: (It’s an all-in-one meal for good, quality sleep.)

All-in-one chicken, squash & new potato casserole

Prep: 10 mins

Cook: 35 mins

Serves 2

You will need:

  • ¼ small butternut squash, peeled and diced (200g approx / 7 oz US)
  • 8 small new potatoes (250g / approx 9 oz)
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tbsp thyme leaves
  • 600ml chicken stock (20 oz US)
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 2 skinless chicken breasts
  • 175g prepared French beans, courgette or broccoli (6 oz US)
  • 25g pitted green olives in brine, drained (0.8 oz US)


  • Heat oven to 374F.
  • Put the butternut squash, potatoes, ground coriander, thyme, stock and garlic into a flameproof casserole.
  • Season and bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 10 mins.
  • Tuck in the chicken breasts, making sure that they are submerged.
  • Cover and transfer to the oven for 15 mins until the chicken is cooked through.
  • Lift out chicken and veg, set aside and keep warm, then boil the stock until reduced by half.
  • Add the beans and olives, simmer until cooked.
  • Season and serve.

The relationship between food and sleep is a complicated one. But the key to surviving the festive season is all about balance. Getting the correct amount of sleep, (and staying on a consistent sleep-wake schedule), practising portion control and not overindulging in the jungle juice jolly train can see you through to New Years Day unscathed.

Happy holidays!