We’ve all had those days – head out for a sumptuous lunch with colleagues, and about an hour in, a wave of drowsiness sweeps over us. As we struggle to keep our eyes open in order to get through the long workday ahead, we can’t help but question why we stuffed ourselves to the point of sleepiness. But guess what? It’s a common phenomenon that gets the best of us. Scientifically known as postprandial somnolence, which directly translates to “after a meal sleepiness,” food coma is associated with the dip in energy levels after eating.
What Causes Postprandial Somnolence
Unfortunately, when it comes to narrowing down on the main triggers of postprandial somnolence, studies point in several directions. Although numerous types of scientific research have been done on food coma, there is no one-size-fits-all theory for it and its causes. But one thing is for sure – its symptoms are extremely prominent after consuming high calorie foods that are rich in fats and refined carbohydrates.
Because of its association with the physiology of the digestive and nervous system, a widely accepted theory is that shifts in the blood flow are capable of inducing a food coma. As a matter of fact, professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University, David Levitsky, supports this claim, stating that blood flow shifts from the muscle and brain into the digestive system. Why? Because the parasympathetic nervous system, or the rest-and-digest system, gets activated after a heavy meal. This informs your body to focus all of its energy on digestion instead of other functions. As blood flow is taken away from other parts of the body, the resultant effect is the feeling of sleepiness.
The food coma culprits
The main hormone involved in preparing your body for sleep is melatonin. Therefore, if we were to trace things back, two things need to be in place for melatonin levels to surge – increased serotonin levels, which are converted from tryptophan-rich foods. Beyond tryptophan-rich foods, meals high in sugar get converted into glucose very quickly. As insulin attempts to regulate blood sugar levels and reach homeostasis, the eventual sugar crash will make us feel irritable and weak.
How to Prevent Food Coma
Although its cause might not be apparent, there are several things that you could do to prevent food comas. From having a healthy well-balanced diet to watching the way you consume your food, here are a few things worth taking note of.
1. Opt for foods that a lower in calories
This is probably a given, but portion control is extremely important when leading a healthy lifestyle. Whether you are an avid follower of the “My healthy plate” visual guide by the Health Promotion Board or actively abide by the healthy diet pyramid, a well-balanced diet is not only key in managing weight and warding off chronic diseases, but it also helps keep food comas at bay. To minimise the degree of gastric distention and stimulation of sleep-inducing hormones, be wary of the components of your meal. Avoid high-calorie meals as much as possible, and if feasible, prepare your own lunches before work. Choosing liquids over solids can also help prevent food coma – instead of a heavy lunch of chicken rice, a plant-based protein powder shake accompanied with black chia seeds just might keep you alert for the long day ahead.
2. Go easy on the refined carbohydrates
In general, it is important to balance out all your macronutrients. Instead of a plate full of refined carbohydrates, opt for complex carbohydrates that have high amounts of fibre – this will keep you full for longer. Protein-rich foods like organic quinoa seeds and fibre-rich superfoods like organic chia seeds will also gradually release sugars, preventing sugar crashes.
3. Eat slowly & with awareness
Research shows that it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to be aware that it is full. Instead of wolfing down your meal, enjoy your meal slowly and stop when you feel an ounce of “fullness”.