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The Science Behind the Thanksgiving “Food Coma”

After eating a large meal, it’s common to experience a food coma. You may feel extreme fatigue, lethargy, bloating, heaviness, and a strong desire to hit the couch for a nap.

This post-meal haze isn’t just in your head. It’s a real condition called postprandial somnolence that has baffled scientists for years.

While we’ve all experienced what a food coma feels like, there is still some debate amongst researchers about what causes this uncontrollable sleepiness after a big meal. In this blog, we’ll explore the science behind the food coma and a few tips to help you avoid feeling like a Thanksgiving zombie.

What Makes Us So Sleepy After a Meal?

For years we believed that tryptophan was the only culprit in Thanksgiving dinner food comas, but research proves that there’s more to food comas than turkey legs. Here’s the real science behind why we feel so sleepy after a big meal.

  • Bigger portions zap our energy.
    Digesting a big meal takes a lot of effort – especially if that meal is bigger than your body is used to handling and rich in high-energy foods.

To get the job done, the nervous system switches to parasympathetic – or “rest and digest” – mode. Blood and energy redirect to the digestive organs and the sympathetic nervous system response (what keeps you active and alert) lowers. This leaves you feeling tired, sluggish, and ready to sleep.

  • Overeating causes a dip in blood sugar.

Eating a balanced meal will keep blood sugar stable. But a meal that’s high in carbohydrates and refined sugar will cause a spike, then a low dip in blood sugar. That dip is known as a “sugar crash” and can make you feel lazy or sleepy.

  • High protein and salt intake increase sleepiness.

Researchers believe that a meal high in protein and salt is a common cause of food comas. In one study, researchers found that fruit flies who consumed higher levels of protein and salt slept for longer periods of time. This is likely because protein and salt require more energy to digest. Their presence triggers the brain to feel sleepy so we can preserve our energy for digestion and assimilation.

  • Tryptophan causes relaxation.

While tryptophan isn’t the only cause of food comas, it does play a role. Tryptophan is an amino acid that, when digested, turns into serotonin, then melatonin. Serotonin is the feel-good hormone that can put you into an easy peaceful state of mind, while melatonin is the sleep-inducing hormone that keeps us on our circadian rhythm.

It’s important to know that turkey isn’t the only Thanksgiving food that contains this sleep-inducing amino acid. Chicken, eggs, nuts and seeds, milk, and tofu are also high in tryptophan.

Tips to Avoid the Post-Feast Food Coma

While a good nap after a big meal is okay once in a while, overeating can lead to digestive issues down the line. Here’s how to make the most of your rest and digest this Thanksgiving:

  1. Load up on the better-for-you foods. Aim to make half your plate fiber-rich, colorful fruits and veggies.

  2. Enjoy smaller meals throughout the day to avoid overloading your digestive system.

  3. Eat slowly and chew thoroughly. This helps in two ways: it makes digestion an easier job on your stomach and gives your brain more time to realize it’s full which prevents overeating. Plus, you’ll enjoy your meal more!

  4. Stay hydrated. Your body needs water to process and transport nutrients. This is even more important if you’re celebrating Thanksgiving with an alcoholic beverage or two.

  5. Take a post-meal walk. Take a few minutes to rest after your meal, then get moving again. Light exercise helps encourage movement through the digestive tract and balances your blood sugar.

Balanced Meals, Healthy Gut!

Thanksgiving (or any big food celebration) is meant to be enjoyed – not slept through! Use these tips to eat mindfully and enjoy a healthy holiday season. Your gut will thank you!

Call us at 623-266-0059, or request an appointment to learn how you can improve your digestion, gut health, and overall wellness through food and an individualized naturopathic treatment plan.

Much love,
Dr. Lena Fernandez

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