How does Holiday Turkey Affect your Microbiome?

The turkey was delicious, wasn’t it? It’s a commonly accepted fact that said turkey is going to make you quickly fall asleep after eating.

Not so fast! Tryptophan — the amino acid said to induce sleepiness — doesn’t actually make you tired. Turkey doesn’t even contain more tryptophan than chicken, beef or the nuts you may have nibbled before the big meal.

Although tryptophan doesn’t deserve the credit for your post-turkey nap, some researchers believe it may have the potential to help fight disease. In fact, many of your favorite Thanksgiving foods have the potential to be good for your gut microbiome.

Hungry for details? Let’s take a closer look.


Talking turkey about tryptophan and gut bacteria

When you eat tryptophan-rich foods, like turkey, pumpkin seeds, soy, or cheese, a bacterium in your gut, Clostridium sporogenes, works to break down the amino acid. In the process, it produces specialized molecules called metabolites.

Research shows that these metabolites then enter the bloodstream as a prescription drug would, interacting with the immune system and perhaps altering the intestines for the better. Scientists are hopeful that these findings might be a step toward an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) treatment.

Likewise, a different study examining gut bacteria and tryptophan yielded interesting results. Mice that ate more tryptophan produced more immune cells called double-positive intraepithelial lymphocytes (DP IELs), which may help prevent inflammation in the gut. If these findings can be replicated in humans, tryptophan could be an option to provide relief to those suffering from IBD.


Garlic and leeks: flavorful infection fighters

Savory sides or stuffing with garlic and leeks may also benefit your gut microbiome while pleasing your palate. Garlic and leeks contain prebiotics.

Prebiotics seem to be especially good at stimulating Bifidobacteria. Typically found in the colon, these beneficial bacteria have been used to treat diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems.


Don’t forget the cranberry sauce

Thinking of skipping the cranberry sauce? A 2017 study found that a carbohydrate in cranberries – xyloglucan – may help beneficial bacteria in the microbiome grow. Xyloglucan is broken down and used as energy by our microbes.

Cranberries also contain anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid with antioxidant effects.


Pumpkin spice is certainly nice

We’re not telling you not to skip dessert, but we’re also not telling you not to skip dessert. Some spices featured in pumpkin pie also possess properties that may benefit the microbiome.

Cinnamon has been shown in an animal study to lower levels of carbon dioxide in the stomach, assisting with digestion and potentially curbing post-meal tummy trouble by maintaining normal digestive function. Beyond preventing digestive distress, cinnamon may also protect the walls of the stomach and small intestine, helping to keep the gut balanced and healthy.

Ginger, long used as a digestive aid, may also inhibit the growth of certain strains of harmful bacteria.

Not a pumpkin person? Consider a classic apple pie. You know what they say about an apple a day? Studies have linked regular apple consumption to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

With so much emphasis placed on the damage the annual chow down inflicts on your digestion, isn’t it nice to know that some of what you’re eating is actually doing your body good? Moderation is, of course, key. As you doze after your meal, we hope you’ll take some comfort in imagining your gut bacteria doing a happy dance as they feast on the turkey you ate — with all the trimmings.