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Chicken, like in this chicken tikka masala, is a natural source of tryptophan.

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As we roar past Thanksgiving in the express lane to Christmas, many of us may have spent a post-turkey moment lolling on the couch, our bellies protruding, unable to keep our eyes open in food coma bliss (or discomfort). Tryptophan has long taken the blame for our post-holiday dinner sleepy states, but what exactly is this mysterious and omnipresent Thanksgiving substance we often attribute to turkey?

It turns out that tryptophan is an essential amino acid that we need, since we don’t make it ourselves. We use it to make vitamin B3 and serotonin, but, since it hasn’t actually been shown to be a sleep aid itself, is tryptophan what’s making us so tired after a holiday meal? Do we feel the same fatigue while grabbing a quick turkey sandwich or soup? Not always.

If the tryptophan in turkey isn’t the sleep-inducing agent many claim it is, what is making us so sleepy after we’ve given thanks? Many experts suggest that the accompanying carbohydrate overload on our holiday plate is the actual culprit, while some attribute it to the process of turning tryptophan into serotonin, the byproduct of which is melatonin (hello ZZZs).

Tryptophan tricks

Either way, the interesting thing about tryptophan, other than that insufficient amounts of it can lead to depression, anxiety, irritability, impulsiveness, poor concentration and insomnia to list a few, is that we not only use it to make the aforementioned vitamin B3, but that we also process it into serotonin, often thought of as the “happy hormone.” (Now the possible side effects of having too little start to make sense).

Many of us associate serotonin with brain health and mood. We are right to do so, but our brain is not serotonin’s only home. In fact, the majority of our serotonin levels are produced in our gut, regulating a multitude of functions in addition to our mood including our body temperature, sleep, hunger, bone health and blood clotting.

It’s true that our beloved holiday turkeys contain tryptophan (aka the serotonin and melatonin producer), but there are several other sources as well, so we can make sure we get enough tryptophan all year long.

In addition to the king of the Thanksgiving table, canned tuna, milk, beef, pork and chicken also contain significant amounts of tryptophan. You needn’t be carnivorous to get your dose of this amino acid, as eggs, soy, oats, cheese, sunflower and pumpkin seeds and nuts like peanuts pack a trypto-punch as well.

Chocolate contains up to 19 milligrams per ounce and fruits like bananas, apples and plums contain a bit as well. Fish (sardines in particular), and shellfish like crab and oysters win the competition, supplying us with sometimes more than a day’s requirement. Even veggies like spinach, peas, broccoli and sweet potatoes supply ample amounts of tryptophan.

Keep in mind that natural sources of this amino acid may be your best bet, as there’s a rare side effect that has been associated with its synthetic supplement form. Tryptophan supplements are also discouraged for those who take prescriptive drugs for mood.

Too much serotonin is not a good thing either. Those with too much of it can experience the opposite of the happy affect we attribute to this miracle neurotransmitter. An excess of serotonin can lead to irritability, agitation, restlessness and anxiety. Contact your physician if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms while taking any medications or supplements affecting serotonin levels.

Chicken tikka masala

Ingredients

1 pound white meat chicken, cubed

½ pound tofu, cubed

½ teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon chili powder

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon paprika

1 ½ teaspoon garam masala spice

½ teaspoon coriander

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons ghee

½ red onion, diced

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3 cloves garlic, finely minced

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely minced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

½ teaspoon curry powder

1 can pureed tomatoes or tomato sauce (15 oz)

1 can coconut milk, full fat

1 pinch sugar

Parsley for garnish

Method

Mix together chili powder, cinnamon, turmeric, paprika, masala spice, coriander and salt.

Cube chicken and place in bowl, sprinkling spice mixture over it.

Toss.

To a hot cast iron pan, add 1 tablespoon ghee and melt.

Add chicken, browning until about 75 percent cooked.

Remove and set aside.

Add remaining tablespoon of ghee and melt, adding onions and sautéing for about two minutes.

Add garlic and ginger, cooking until fragrant.

Add onion and sauté until translucent.

Mix in tomato paste, stirring until mixture is coated.

Add curry, mix.

Add tomato sauce. Stir in coconut milk.

Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring in sugar and more salt if desired.

Add in chicken and tofu.

Simmer for another 10-15 minutes.

Serve over rice, garnish with parsley.

Katharine A. Jameson, a certified nutrition counselor who grew up in Williamsville and Townshend, writes about food and health for Vermont News & Media. For more tricks, tips and hacks, find her on Instagram:

@foodforthoughtwithkat