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Thom Barker: It’s not the turkey, the yogurt or the vaccine

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Contributed

You polished off a plate heaped with turkey, turnips, potatoes, cabbage, pease pudding and all the trimmings. Maybe you went back for seconds. And, of course, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a big wedge of pumpkin pie.

You loosen your belt and sit down to watch the football game, or whatever, but you don’t get far into it before you’re fast asleep.

“It’s the tryptophan in the turkey,” someone inevitably argues, as if it is a well-known fact.

Only it’s not.

What it is is a common myth made plausible by a kernel of truth.

Tryptophan is an amino acid, which is a component in the production of the brain chemical serotonin. Seratonin, through a complex process that involves light reception in the eyes is converted to melatonin, which does regulate sleep and waking patterns.

And there is the kernel of truth.  

In the past, tryptophan has been marketed as a sleep aid, but to knock a wakeful person up, it would have to be taken on an empty stomach and in quantities that are simply not present in the amount of turkey even the most consumptive of Thanksgiving celebrants can eat.


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The far more likely culprit, or culprits, is the fact that you just spent an entire activity-packed long weekend celebrating with family, drinking copious amounts of alcohol and stuffing yourself beyond capacity with butter-laden carbohydrates.

But people are very attracted to simple sciencey-sounding explanations of cause and effect. Marketers are particularly prone to capitalizing on this tendency for, shall we say, gullibility.

One of my favourite examples is probiotics.

A few years ago yogurt companies stumbled upon the idea of good bacteria.

The kernel of truth here is that our guts contain a complex ecosystem of bacteria that is essential to our health.

The logic, or illogic as it were, goes something like: “I need good bacteria in my digestive system, yogurt has good bacteria in it, ergo, I should eat yogurt.”

At least one company even patented their particular brand of bacteria and another (maybe it was the same one) made a 14-day challenge out of it.

Only it doesn’t quite work that way.

The micro-biota in our guts are pretty specific and there is little scientific evidence that ingesting probiotics is beneficial in any way despite the fact probiotics supplement industry is worth tens of billions of dollars annually.

But let’s say for the benefit of argument yogurt bacteria is good for you. You’d have to eat so much of it, it would probably put you to sleep. Of course, you can always blame the tryptophan; yogurt has more than turkey.

People always ask, but Thom, what’s the harm?

Maybe not much for the two examples above, but conflating correlation with causation, gets us into all kinds of trouble.

Take the example of vaccinations and autism. Sometime after vaccinations for childhood diseases became the norm, there was a corresponding increase in the number of children being diagnosed with autism.

Nevermind that there was also a corresponding expansion of the definition of autism, it wasn’t long before an unscrupulous researcher, Andrew Wakefield, published a study that linked the two things. Nevermind that he faked data and was later exposed as a fraud and was stripped of his medical credentials. Nevermind that before he published his study, he was working on a patent for his own version of the measles vaccine, which he intended to market as a “safe alternative.” Nevermind that actual scientific evidence has since completely refuted the connection.

The damage had already been done. Millions of people continue to believe in that specific danger, or have just become distrustful of vaccines in general. Now, so many parents are refusing to vaccinate their children that we are seeing a resurgence in childhood diseases that until recently were all but eradicated, such as measles and whooping cough.

That’s the danger.

It doesn’t hurt to view any bit of information with a healthy dose of skepticism, even if it’s just Uncle Fred’s post-Thanksgiving turkey coma.

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