You’re at work, and the clock is ticking down to lunch. You should be excited about it, but you know that once you satisfy that rumbling stomach, you’ll soon be fighting the urge to curl up and take a nap.
This isn’t just any urge. This is a full-on assault to your senses. Falling asleep after eating is a perfectly normal occurrence, but you’d like to know why it hits you so hard when you need to wrap things up. Chances are, falling asleep after eating has you hostage, so it’s time to find out why it happens and what to do about it.
What Is A Food Coma?
“Postprandial somnolence,” or more affectionately known as a food coma, is the feeling of extreme fatigue that follows a large meal, most famously that Thanksgiving binge you have every year during which you fall asleep on your mom’s couch while watching the game. For some of you, it may be a sense of tiredness that lasts for a few hours. For others, you’re taking a nap whether you want to or not. There are a few different theories about what’s going on when your body experiences this kind of fatigue. Let’s take a look at what might be going on.
Food comas are caused when eating (sometimes) large amounts of food so impairs your ability to function that you fall asleep almost against your will. Digestion is difficult on the body, which is why you often can’t eat when you’re really stressed. Your body has to divert a lot of resources to the act of digestion. Sometimes, it puts a huge damper on what you’re able to accomplish until the process is complete.
Scientists aren’t in full agreement as to why this condition sometimes occurs but not all the time. Some believe it has to do with compounds in certain foods, such as the famed Tryptophan of turkey, or certain fat and cholesterol combinations. Others think that the body shifts enough blood away from your brain that it triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows other biological functions until digestion is complete.
Are Food Comas Unavoidable?
For most people, no. If it happens all the time, there’s a good chance you’re consuming inappropriate amounts of food or consuming foods that are high in substances that spike your blood sugar and cause an imbalance in digestion.
A lot of research suggests that the combination of carbohydrate and high fats in meals can trigger difficult digestion causing the parasympathetic nervous system to do its thing. Scientists also believe that after overeating these types of meals, the signals sent to the brain help encourage the sense of fullness to help you quit eating.
How Do I Cut Down On Feeling Sleepy After Eating?
There are a few things you can do to help yourself get over those initial feelings of sleepiness. If you know that you’re going to eat an unusually big, rich meal that usually makes you sleepy, here are a few tips.
Eat Smaller Meals
Going to Thanksgiving and staying for the game? Break your Thanksgiving meal up into smaller portions instead of eating first, second, and third helpings all at once. This gives your body a break between each serving and eases the impact of digestion. It also gives you a chance to feel if you’re really full before getting another helping that can send you from full to stuffed.
Are you the type that forgets to drink liquid when you’re eating? Liquids help you feel fuller faster and prevent some of the overeating common with sleep comas. For lunch, you might have soup and half a sandwich instead of that whole sandwich, or you may try a smoothie right before your big meeting. If nothing else, drinking plenty of water helps prevent dehydration which can cause fatigue all by itself.
Don’t just resign yourself to the couch. Take a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood to help digestion do its thing. Movement helps regulate blood sugar and can help your digestion move along. It increases circulation, activating both your muscle groups and digestion, so you’ll feel more energized even after a huge meal. Plus, it may help you stave off feelings of guilt for how many calories you’ve had.
Balance The Meal
We know you want to reach for that entire plate of cheese fries, but how about dividing up your meals into more balanced portions? Keeping track of your macronutrients can help you avoid those feelings of fatigue.
Think of your meals as pieces of a pie. The largest part of that pie should be fruits and vegetables plus a lean protein source. Next should be a complex carb, and the final, smallest piece is a healthy fat. If you aren’t sure how to put that together, you can work with a nutritionist or ask your primary care physician to help you figure things out.
Are There Any Medical Reasons For Falling Asleep?
For most of us, feeling fatigue after eating is nothing more than a chemical reaction to the foods we just ate. For some, however, it could be a symptom of a bigger, underlying issue. Here are some to watch out for.
Type II Diabetes throws your body’s insulin response out of wack, causing spikes in blood sugar followed by pretty serious crashes. Your body can’t handle processing sugar, and so you feel tired after eating sugar or anything that breaks down into simple sugar (such as carbohydrates).
Diabetes responses can cause two different issues. Hyperglycemia is a severe spike in blood sugar that can’t be mitigated by insulin. The excess sugar circulates but is unable to bond to the cell for energy causing you to feel tired.
The opposite, hypoglycemia, is when blood sugar is too low. Too many simple sugars can spike blood sugar levels and then process them too quickly causing that familiar sugar crash. Both are difficult to recover from and may cause more serious issues if left undiagnosed or untreated.
A sneaky symptom of an undiagnosed food allergy is fatigue. For example, some people who don’t realize they are allergic to gluten may consume those foods and feel severely fatigued. To make matters worse, your body begins to crave those foods (called allergic addition). As your body loses access to those foods, you crave them, experiencing withdrawal-like symptoms. Giving in to those cravings triggers the allergic reaction causing extreme fatigue among other symptoms.
If your body is already depleted of oxygen-rich blood, the act of digestion may cause your body to feel fatigue. When your digestive system pulls resources away from other systems and triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, it can leave you feeling dizzy and depleted.
Your thyroid produces critical hormones, but when it’s under-active, some of the known symptoms are fatigue among other things. If you have undiagnosed thyroid issues, natural biological responses may be more taxing on your body and could cause you to have quite a bit of post-meal fatigue.
What Should I Do If I Suspect An Underlying Issue?
You should call and make an appointment with your doctor to help examine some of the possible underlying causes. While you’re waiting for your appointment, and possibly after, keeping a food log can help you identify patterns between certain foods and your fatigue.
To keep a journal, record the time and date of everything you ate and how you feel immediately, one hour, and two hours after. This can help you identify which foods may be triggering the fatigue and how often it’s happening. Your doctor can also use the journal for clues as to what may be causing the post-meal fatigue.
Your doctor could order several different kinds of tests to determine the cause, including the following:
- Glucose tolerance test: During this test, you drink a sugary substance meant to test how tolerant your body is of blood sugar spikes. It usually takes a few hours, and you should get the results in a few days. You’ll have to fast beforehand.
- Hemoglobin A1C test: This test measures the average blood glucose levels over a period of several months instead of at the moment of the test. It involves sampling your blood to test for the presence of hemoglobin, which has a life of about three months. Higher levels of hemoglobin can indicate higher blood sugar levels at some point in the past.
- Allergy tests: your doctor may also perform a blood or skin test to test for reactivity to certain foods and substances. It can give you a range of substances that cause inflammation and allergic response that could be causing your fatigue.
- Elimination diet: if results are unclear or if the doctor doesn’t see a reason for testing just yet, he or she may ask you to eliminate common triggers that can irritate the digestive system. When you eliminate these things, you wait a few weeks to see if your fatigue is markedly improved. If it is, you slowly add foods back into your diet one by one to see which one triggers the return of fatigue.
Other tests may be performed based on what your doctor suspects may be the issue. Be sure to follow all the directions, such as fasting before certain tests, so that your results aren’t compromised.
Occasional Fatigue After A Meal Is Normal
Even if there’s no underlying cause of fatigue after a meal, it’s common to sometimes feel tired after a meal. Sometimes, the best way to alleviate the fatigue is to go ahead and succumb to a nap. Studies show that a quick nap of no more than 20 minutes can refresh your energy and help you get started back up no matter the time of day. As long as the symptoms aren’t disrupting your life and don’t occur after every single meal, it may not be a big deal.
If you’re at work, talk to your boss about making time for breaks such as a nap. If that isn’t possible, using a few minutes during your lunch or break to go for a quick walk can help alleviate that fatigue until you can take a nap.
Taking care to avoid sugar spikes, such as eating protein instead of a sugary snack, or cutting out caffeine can help you keep your energy more regular even during the part of the day typically associated with energy slumps. Knowing your rhythms allows you to work with those energy ups and downs, so you have more steady energy over the course of the day.
It’s best to have regular checkups with your general practitioner so that any time you changes in your body or behavior are noted quickly. A general food journal can teach you a lot about your food habits and biological responses, and many people use them to help tailor foods for their highest good.
It’s not necessary to get worked up about occasional fatigue. Most likely, the combination of macronutrients is causing your digestion to take more resources and triggering your sleepiness. A quick nap, or a quick walk if you can’t do that, can help get your energy back on track in no time. Checking up on your body and your health is a vital part of living a full life, but not everything is an issue.
Make sure that you balance the majority of your meals with healthy foods such as lean proteins and fruits and veggies. Getting a good mix of your macronutrients reduces the effects of indulging every once in a while because your body is already in a better condition to handle that rich Thanksgiving meal.
If you do find that you have an underlying cause behind your fatigue, moving onto this new stage of life by following your doctor’s plan and taking care of yourself can help you feel as normal as possible. Sure, life may not be exactly the same as it was before, but you’ll soon get your life back under control and be able to move on.