What is a food coma, what does it feel like, and how exactly do you overcome the feeling?
If you always find yourself feeling extra sleepy after you’ve had a big meal, you’re not alone. In fact, tiredness after eating is extremely common. It’s something scientists refer to as “postprandial somnolence”. This is the scientific term for a ‘food coma’.
Part of the reason why a food coma happens is because it requires a lot of energy to digest large quantities of food.
After eating too much food, the body may be overcome with feelings of drowsiness or lethargy. This is a result of not just your digestive system and metabolism going into overdrive, but also exposure to certain hormones and chemicals. While the causes of food comas are still being explored, most experts agree food comas aren’t particularly harmful.
However, a food coma can be a little frustrating, particularly if you’ve planned to do something important after a big lunch or dinner, and you’re suddenly hit with the desire to lie down. Here’s what you need to know about the food coma, what prompts your sleepy state after eating, and what you can do about it.
What are the Symptoms of a Food Coma?
Postprandial somnolence, colloquially known as a food coma, is a feeling of tiredness, bloating, and fatigue which follows directly after a meal. The sensation has earned a number of names over the years, including the “post-lunch dip”, and the “after-dinner dip”.
The most common symptom of this condition is a feeling of overwhelming sleepiness. You may be tempted to lie down for a nap, or simply sprawl on the sofa and do nothing for a couple of hours. Other people experience issues such as:
- Physical exhaustion
- Feeling like your limbs are heavy to lift or move
- Poor concentration
- Bloating or stomach pain
The exact experience you have will often depend on a number of different factors, including the types of food you eat. For instance, eating a lot of Turkey at Thanksgiving can cause sleepiness, alongside stomach cramping, bloating, and gas, due to a lack of dietary fiber.
What Causes a Food Coma?
Though food comas are relatively common, they’re not very well studied. For the most part, scientists have only come up with theories around why we feel tired after eating. However, there have been a few reports which may shed some light on the experience.
Some of the most common causes of a food coma include:
1.Changes in Circulation
For a while scientists believed postprandial somnolence was caused by an increased flow of blood to the gut, which led to reduced circulation in the brain. However, this theory has been challenged by a number of modern scientists. The human body is naturally capable of maintaining consistent blood flow to the brain, even during difficult and stressful situations.
Different studies have revealed unique insights into our circulation following meals. One report from 2018 found people who didn’t eat breakfast did see a change in blood flow to the brain after eating lunch, which increased their fatigue. However, other studies have challenged this, showing that eating could actually increase blood flow to the brain too.
2.Changes in Hormones
Other theories link food comas and sleepiness after eating to the activation of certain hormones in the body. Eating releases various neurotransmitters and hormones responsible for digestion. Some of the nerve and brain pathways linked to digestion are also connected to sleep and tiredness. For instance, melatonin, one of the key substances connected to sleep, is generated by the gut and pineal gland, which could mean you experience higher doses of this hormone after eating.
Alternatively, the hormone orexin, which assists in promoting alertness and feelings of hunger, is inhibited once you’re done eating. This could mean you’re less likely to feel alert and active once you’ve already had a meal.
3.The Circadian Rhythm
The circadian rhythm is the natural 24-hour sleeping and waking cycle of the human body. It’s maintained by the release and inhibition of various hormones at different times during the day. Research shows that, alongside the expected sleep phase we all experience at night, the body also releases hormones for a smaller sleep phase during the early afternoon.
This could be the reason why many people feel less motivated after lunch, or at a certain time during their work day. It may also be the cause for many people in different parts of the world taking an afternoon nap just after lunch.
4.Large Portions or Heavy Meals
The size of your meal can influence whether you’re likely to feel sleepy after eating. The more calories you consume, the longer it takes for your digestive system to do its work, absorbing all the nutrients, and regulating your blood sugar. Eating certain meals high in sugar can also boost your energy levels briefly, which makes you feel tired when the effect wears off.
One study into the diets of truck drivers found those who ate a smaller, healthier meal were less likely to feel sleepy than those who had larger meals. If you’re concerned about being sleepy after eating, it might be worth sticking to a smaller, lighter food option.
5.Specific Types of food
Certain foods are also more likely to create feelings of sleepiness than others. For instance, some foods are high in a substance called “tryptophan”, an amino acid which has been linked to feelings of fatigue and sleepiness. Cheese, turkey, and milk all contain this amino acid.
Experts believe the feeling of sleepiness we get from tryptophan is the result of an increase in serotonin created by the hormone.
Foods high in carbs, fat, and protein are also regularly linked to sleepiness after eating. Calorie-dense foods with significant levels of fat and carbohydrates can promote the release of cytokines, a type of protein linked to fatigue. Alternatively, meals high in fat and protein can increase levels of the hormone cholecystokinin and peptide YY, which also have links to sleepiness.
Some scientists believe postprandial somnolence is simply a result of human evolution. Many animal species experience this issue, according to researchers, not just humans. Some researchers think sleeping after eating would allow the body to store energy for when it’s needed, while allowing the brain to process information about food gathering and consumption.
Academics have even suggested sleep could be the natural state the body reverts to after eating, based on the fact that hunger signals such as orexin and acetylcholine are often connected to alertness.
How to Prevent a Food Coma
Since the causes of food comas aren’t fully understood, it’s difficult to know how to prevent the issue completely. However, there may be some practices which can reduce your risk of feeling common symptoms such as bloating and tiredness, such as:
Portion control: Since larger portions of food are often connected with an increased risk of sleepiness after eating, keeping your portions light might help. Be mindful of when your body tells you its full, so you can avoid overeating.
Choose lighter and more balanced meals: Foods heavy in various ingredients such as protein, fat, and carbohydrates can increase your chances of a food coma. Making sure you eat a balanced meal with lots of fresh produce and fewer processed foods could help.
Stay hydrated: Often, we forget to drink as much water as we should. This can lead to sleepiness, as the brain can’t function correctly with the right amount of liquid. Ensuring you drink plenty of water throughout your meals should help to maintain your energy levels, and it could reduce your chances of over-eating.
Get plenty of rest: If you’re already tired from a poor night of sleep, then the body’s natural dip in energy levels in the early afternoon is likely to feel a lot worse. Make sure you aim to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night, depending on your specific needs.
How to Overcome a Food Coma
If you’re already suffering from a food coma, there are a few options for how you can tackle the problem. The most obvious solution is to take a short nap. Sleeping for 20 minutes will help to rest your brain, and revitalize your mind, so you can jump back into action. However, sleeping for too long could disrupt your circadian rhythms, so be careful.
Alternatively, you could consider exposing yourself to bright, white lights. Studies have shown using bright lights which mimic the glow of the sun can assist in preserving alertness. Other options include:
Exercising: Getting active after a meal with a short walk or dance can help invigorate your body and boost your adrenaline levels. A little activity after a meal will also help to manage your blood sugar levels, and assist with digestion.
Eat more fruits and vegetables: Eating fruits and vegetables with plenty of included fiber will help your body to process the meals you eat faster. Fruits and vegetables are also rich in water, so they can help you to stay hydrated.
Avoid alcohol: While a drink with your meal might be an attractive option, it’s likely to make you feel even more sluggish and drowsy. If you’re already feeling tired after eating, drinking alcohol is likely to make the situation worse.
Try caffeine: If you’re struggling with a food coma and you need to get back to work, a cup of black coffee without any milk or sugar will help to perk you up. Avoid adding sugars and syrups, as this can lead to a crash later.
Understanding Food Comas
Postprandial somnolence is a common, but relatively complex experience for many people. Feeling sleepy after a meal can be natural for a lot of us, but it can also be disconcerting, particularly if you were planning a big activity after eating.
Getting to know your body’s dietary needs, and nutritional requirements can help to ensure you get the most out of every nutritional experience, with as few side effects as possible. Your CircleDNA test will give you an insight into the kind of meals and nutrition you should be choosing to live an energetic, happy, and healthy life. This is because nutritional needs vary based on your DNA
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- Wiley Online Library: Influence of breakfast on hemodynamics after lunch – a sonographic evaluation of mesenteric and cervical blood flows
- NCBI: Volume flow in the common carotid artery does not decrease postprandially
- NCBI: Metabolic signals in sleep regulation: recent insights
- NCBI: Afternoon Nap and Bright Light Exposure Improve Cognitive Flexibility Post Lunch
- NCBI: Prudent diet is associated with low sleepiness among short-haul truck drivers
- NCBI: The role of IL-1 in postprandial fatigue
- NCBI: Afternoon Nap and Bright Light Exposure Improve Cognitive Flexibility Post Lunch