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Fighting a Food Coma
What causes it and how to prevent it.

Fighting a Food Coma
Fighting a Food Coma

It strikes after you finish a large meal. You get sleepy, your eyes glaze over, your head slumps forward and you start to nod off. You’re experiencing something called a “food coma.”

The technical term for a food coma is “Postprandial somnolence.” It’s most commonly experienced after Thanksgiving dinner, one of the biggest meals people eat each year. If that were the only time it happened, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.  

However, some people experience a food coma at least once a week. Rather than an annual annoyance, it wreaks havoc on afternoon productivity and can be dangerous if your job requires you to be alert. To deal with the problem, you’ve got to understand what it is, and what it isn’t. Here are two of the most widely shared myths on what causes a food coma.   

Blame it on the tryptophan in the turkey. Turkey isn’t something most people eat regularly and turkey does contain the amino acid tryptophan, which causes drowsiness. But when tryptophan levels were measured, it was found that beef, chicken and other meats have comparable levels. Cheese, eggs, peanuts, soy products and pork are all rich in tryptophan, but you don’t often hear about people going into a food coma after eating an omelet. Unless you’re eating a massive amount of turkey, there just isn’t enough tryptophan in it to cause the problem.

Blood rushes to your stomach and away from your brain to digest all that food. As blood flow drops, so does the oxygen level in your brain and fatigue sets in. As simple as that explanation seems, our bodies don’t quite work that way. Yes, we do experience increased blood flow to our stomach to digest food. However, your body gets it by diverting blood from skeletal muscle tissue and by making your heart pump more each minute. The amount of blood that flows to your brain is very tightly regulated and doesn’t drop when we eat a big meal, so it can’t be the cause of post-meal sleepiness.

This is what happens.

The food coma crash is triggered by your autonomic nervous system or ANS. That’s what controls things like the beating of your heart, breathing, digestion and how much you sweat. The ANS is divided into two branches; the sympathetic nervous system or SNS and the parasympathetic nervous system or PNS.

  • The SNS takes care of you when you’re threatened or in danger. It triggers the “fight or flight” response when dealing with stressful situations.
  • The PNS takes care of things when you’re tired or hungry. It’s known as the “rest and digest” response.

Eat a meal and the PNS slows your heart rate, increases digestion and makes you tired. The more food you eat in a single sitting, the greater control you give to the PNS and your “rest and digest” response. But that’s not the only thing making you tired. 

Foods with a lot of simple carbohydrates like white bread, pasta and desserts break down rapidly and are converted into sugar or glucose molecules. Then your pancreas kicks in and releases insulin to clear the sugar from your bloodstream. However, in a healthy person, insulin typically does too good of a job clearing away sugar. The sugar levels in your blood then plummet below resting levels and you start to feel sluggish and tired. The more simple carbs you eat, the greater the rebound sleepiness effect is.

How do you avoid it?

Eat balanced meals that are lower in carbs and higher in healthy fats and protein. The fewer carbs you eat, the fewer carbs your body has available to make you drowsy.

Use smaller plates. When people use smaller plates, they eat less food. When you eat less, you’re less likely to experience a food coma.

Deliberately reduce the amount of food you put on your plate. Try cutting each serving in half. Remember you can always go back for more.

After you finish a plate of food, set an alarm for 10 minutes. Now wait until that alarm goes off before you get any more. It takes a while for your body to signal your brain that it’s full. Waiting those few extra minutes can help your brain catch up and realize if you’re truly still hungry or not.

When you’re finished eating, get up and do something. Clear the table, wash the dishes or take a walk. Moving can help keep you awake and get you past the drowsy feelings.

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