Photo by: Getty Images

Getty Images

Food Coma? Here's Why You Get Sleepy After You Eat

By: Ashley Hamer

You can reduce the need for nodding off after dinner with a few simple steps.

August 01, 2019

"I can't believe I ate the whole thing!" That's how it starts. How it ends: a nap on the couch, or at least a very unproductive afternoon. In everyday language, it's known as a food coma, carb coma, or the itis. In scientific terms, it's called postprandial somnolence ("postprandial" means after a meal, "somnolence" means drowsiness). But why does it happen?

Dig In

To understand the answer, it's important to know what happens in your digestive system when you eat. While you're chewing, your stomach produces the hormone gastrin, which triggers the production of the digestive juices that begin to break down your food. That broken-down food then moves into the small intestine as the gut releases the blood-flow regulating hormone enterogastrone. Meanwhile, your pancreas releases insulin to help your stomach absorb glucose from the carbohydrates in the meal. At the same time, insulin sends a variety of amino acids into the brain, including the infamous sleepy chemical known as tryptophan.

You might notice that food comas don't happen after every meal — just the indulgent ones. There are a few reasons for this: a meal high in carbohydrates triggers a larger spike in insulin, which makes more tryptophan enter your brain. When that happens, the tryptophan first turns into serotonin, which makes you feel good, and then into melatonin, which makes you feel drowsy. Glucose from the carbs also may block brain cells called orexin neurons, which are responsible for keeping you awake and alert.

Separating Meal Myth from Feast Fact

It should be mentioned, however, that when you combine tryptophan with all the other amino acids, hormones, and macronutrients you get in a meal, it doesn't have much of an effect. Stop blaming the Thanksgiving turkey! It has less tryptophan than chicken, anyway. Plus, high-protein meals don't have the same sleepy effect, since protein tends to promote the release of more stimulating amino acids.

Food comas are sometimes unavoidable — nobody wants to watch their diet during a holiday feast — but if you want to reduce your chances of nodding off after dinner, there are a few ways to do so. Watch your portions and eat slowly so your body's hormones have time to balance out. Also, make sure you're eating a balanced meal without too much starch or fat and with enough veggies and vitamins. If you really want to stay alert, here are a few snack suggestions:

  • Oatmeal: Yes, it's carbs — that's where moderation comes in. But oatmeal also has the benefit of being slow-burning. Instead of rushing through the peak and crash, it'll keep you rolling all morning long.
  • Beans: A cup of beans is packed with protein, and will leave you feeling full and satisfied. Better yet, it will stabilize your blood sugar levels so you can keep up a steady pace all day.
  • Almonds: These nutrient-rich nuts contain both Vitamin B and magnesium — the latter of which has been linked to an improved metabolism while exercising.
  • Eggs: Also full of protein, eggs give you a jumpstart in the morning with heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. But you might want to skip the bacon if you need to stay alert.

This article first appeared on Curiosity.com.

Next Up

Seed Banking: Storing Plant Diversity to Ensure Healthy Food

What is a seed bank and how can it help up save certain crops from extinction?

Why Doesn't a "Reverse Microwave" for Cooling Food Exist?

You may want to stick to the conventional methods of cooling food.

When Was There Life on Venus?

What we have is a cosmic whodunit. Venus, the second planet from the sun and considered by the more romantic types as "Earth's twin" and the avatar of love, is dead.

DNA's Building Blocks May Have Their Origins in Outer Space

One of life's building blocks could have originated in outer space. But if this experiment shows how these building blocks actually formed, how exactly did they get to Earth?

That’s a (Weirdly) Big Black Hole!

Recently astronomers identified a black hole near a star called LB-1 and they found out that the black hole is 70 times the mass of the sun. This is a mystery because the biggest black holes we can get from the deaths of the most massive stars are around 30 times the mass of the sun, so how did black hole get this big?

Where should we go? The Moon or Mars?

There’s been a lot of excitement around space exploration recently. Astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter discusses the viability between the Moon and Mars.

Why We'll (Probably) Never Be Able to Teleport

For many of us, teleportation would be the absolute best way to travel. Imagine just stepping into a transporter and being able to go thousands of miles in nearly an instant.

India’s Space Agency is Going Big… By Going Small

Astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter shares the latest in the world of rocket launches and what India’s SSLV is all about.

Last Call for the King of Planets

This month Jupiter is entering conjunction which means it's the last chance this year to catch a glimpse of the largest planet in our solar system.

Following Blue Origin’s NS-12 Rocket Launch

Blue Origin, Billionaire Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight company, is rescheduled to launch its NS-12 reusable spacecraft on Wednesday, December 11. Watch it LIVE.