Food Coma Causes and Cures

Last Update: July 11, 2022

Ever wonder why the dreaded after-lunch coma hits as soon as you get back to your desk? Or why it is that Thanksgiving has become just as renowned for the post-turkey nap as it is for the celebration itself?

Causes of Food Comas

Though plenty of people blame that signature holiday drowsiness on the turkey, it’s not all the bird’s fault. As it turns out, the culprit isn’t turkey at all, but a chain reaction of biological chemicals set off by your meal. And there are some things you can do to counteract the dreaded slump.

Health coach Brooke Berryhill Fugitt explained that tryptophan, an essential amino acid in turkey and other animal products, contributes to that sleepy feeling. When you eat tryptophan, the body produces a neurotransmitter that controls your mood: serotonin.

Serotonin also produces melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. You can see how this chain reaction (tryptophan to serotonin to melatonin) produces that fatigue after stuffing your face at the Thanksgiving table.

That said, you would have to eat a whole lot of turkey to ingest enough tryptophan to cause that sleepy feeling. The rest of the meal also affects your energy afterwards.

In particular, carbohydrate intake has been linked to the release of tryptophan, which in turn triggers those feelings of satisfaction and drowsiness. Meals high in carbohydrates have been shown to cause a significant spike in tryptophan compared to protein-rich meals.

Napping and Food Comas

As if that wasn’t enough,  the simple process of digestion can also leave you yearning for a catnap.

“When you eat a meal, especially a large meal, your body’s first priority is sending blood to your stomach to aid in digestion,” Fugitt said. “As you can imagine, when your stomach monopolizes the blood supply, you’re not going to have energy for much else.”

A spike in blood sugar may also leave you feeling fatigued—extremely high blood sugar could even cause you to faint. Fugitt noted that a typical holiday meal creates the perfect conditions for a spike in blood sugar.

“Refined carbs—mashed potatoes, rolls, and stuffing—along with simple carbs like cranberry sauce and desserts make your blood sugar skyrocket and then plummet, sapping your energy,” she explained.

Sleep Cycles and Food Coma

Feeling sleepy after your lunch break even though you didn’t eat a ton of carbs or a massive meal? There could be another culprit: your sleep cycle.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the body’s internal clock may also have something to do with what they call the “post-lunch dip.” Our natural circadian rhythms govern sleep, and cause natural feelings of sleepiness around 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day—just the time when you’re returning from that long lunch. Plus, if your family happens to eat Thanksgiving dinner earlier in the afternoon, that drop in alertness coincides perfectly with stuffing your face with pumpkin pie.

All in all, it sounds pretty hard to avoid, doesn’t it? Though you can’t completely mitigate the effects of a big meal, you can try a few strategies to boost your energy.

Food Coma Cures

First, steer clear of refined sugars and carbohydrates. Yes, we’re officially giving you an excuse to skip your great aunt’s awful marshmallow–sweet potato concoction. Instead, load up your plate with some turkey and plenty of veggies, like this roasted broccolini.

Getting plenty of sleep and sticking to a regular sleep cycle can also help you avoid the afternoon zzz’s. Still desperate for a nap? Go for a short walk. Getting the blood moving can reinvigorate the body, so you’ll still be totally awake when the family Turkey Day flag football game kicks off.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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Annalise Mantz

Annalise is a foodie, Brussels sprouts lover, grammar nerd, and political pet aficionado.

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