Why do we get tired after eating?

April 14, 2018

Why do we get tired after eating?

We all joke about suffering from a “food coma” after a big meal, but did you ever stop to think about why that happens? To a degree, it is a natural consequence, but it can easily spiral out of control. For example, you don’t want to go out for a business lunch then find yourself drowsy for the rest of the workday. In addition, if this is happening often, it may be an indicator of other health issues or an imbalanced diet. Here’s the process behind this phenomenon and what you can do to cut down on unnecessary fatigue after eating.

How We Eat
To understand why eating makes us feel tired, we need to understand what happens when food enters the body in the first place. There are tons of different “micronutrients” we need for the body to function, but when it comes to “macronutrients” for energy, there are three to consider: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Each of these is broken down into other components to power various bodily processes. However, it’s carbohydrates that we specifically want to focus on here, because these end up as sugar, specifically glucose, fructose and galactose.

When the body is turning carbs into sugar, there are several other biological processes that take place. For example, while it waits to be burned off from physical activity, glucose sits in the bloodstream. This leads to heightened levels of blood sugar,1 and when blood sugar levels are heightened, insulin is secreted by the pancreas. Along with the release of insulin, the body produces hormones like serotonin and melatonin. Together, these increase drowsiness. In addition, the act of digestion requires energy. Some estimate that the digestive process can take up to 80% of our spare energy!

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Outside Factors
The “food coma” as we know it is primarily associated with carbohydrates and simple sugars, because these take the least amount of time to break down into glucose. In addition, there is some concern about the impact of overconsumption of these foods in terms of your overall health.3 Indeed, it’s best to eat these foods in moderation. However, there are other foods out there that may make you sleepy as well. Here are a few examples:

Turkey: If any meal was to leave you wanting to take a nap, chances are that a typical American Thanksgiving dinner is a good example. However, this stems from more than just the quantity of a big holiday meal. Turkey contains an amino acid called tryptophan, which is a component the body uses to create serotonin, which we mentioned can make you feel tired. Turkey is the most popular tryptophan-rich food, but there are other ones out there, like soy, eggs, tofu and certain fish. Because we tend to eat so much turkey portion-wise compared to the other foods mentioned, it’s the first thing people think of when they hear tryptophan.

Cherries: Cherries are rich in several phytochemicals, including melatonin. In fact, some studies have been done to see if drinking tart cherry juice can support better sleep quality.4

Bananas: You may have heard of people taking muscle relaxers to help them sleep, especially if they are dealing with some sort of pain or tension. There are several foods that fulfill this role naturally, and bananas are among the best. This is because of their high amounts of potassium and magnesium.
It’s important to mention healthy foods like bananas and cherries, because getting a little tired after eating is a natural process; it is a byproduct of how our body breaks down food. Handling this is less about making it stop and more about understanding it and regulating it when appropriate.

Keeping Yourself Alert
Tackling this regulation begins with eating a balanced diet to get all the nutrients you need in appropriate amounts. A good place to start is minding how many sugary and carb-heavy foods you eat. For athletes, carb-heavy meals make sense when preparing for rigorous physical activity. But it doesn’t make sense for office workers in the middle of the day. While they still want to eat a balanced diet, they may want to save healthy carbs for later in the day, like dinner. In the middle of the day, it may make sense to eat foods that promote energy. Here is a brief list of options:

  • Eggs
  • Trail Mix
  • Dried Fruits
  • Quinoa
  • Oatmeal

As a rule of thumb, lean proteins and fiber-rich foods are your friends if you are looking to power through your day at 100%. Make sure you are drinking plenty of water as well. Even if you are eating right, fatigue is one of the first signs of dehydration.

As hard as we try to eat balanced meals, you can always use a little help. A good way to fill in essential nutritional gaps and support a good diet is with a multi-vitamin, like Enzymedica’s Enzyme Nutrition™ Multi-Vitamin Two Daily. This combines enzymes and nutrients for energy and immune support.

We are still unraveling the relationship between sleep and diet. In fact, one recent study showed that on top of certain meals making us tired, the reverse may apply. One study showed that sleep loss can lead to certain areas in the brain firing up at the sight of food – even if the body doesn’t necessarily need it.5 As a result, while you don’t want to doze off from your meals, be sure you are making time for regular sleep. Your body will thank you.

  1. Thayer RE. Energy, tiredness, and tension effects of a sugar snack versus moderate exercise. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1987;52(1):119-25.
  2. Tiinamaija Tuomi et al., Increased melatonin signaling is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, Cell Metabolism, doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2016.04.009
  3. Hu FB. Are refined carbohydrates worse than saturated fat?. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(6):1541-2.
  4. Howatson G, Bell PG, Tallent J, Middleton B, Mchugh MP, Ellis J. Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. Eur J Nutr. 2012;51(8):909-16.
  5. Greer SM, Goldstein AN, Walker MP. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nat Commun. 2013;4:2259.

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