Food Coma: Causes and Prevention

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Food coma, or postprandial somnolence, is a condition that can occur after eating a large meal. It is usually described as a feeling of extreme fatigue or lethargy that can last for several hours. There are several different theories about the causes of food coma and what you can do to prevent the condition from occurring.

What Is a Food Coma?

We've probably all done it. After a big meal, you hit the couch, get comfy, grab the remote, and spend the rest of the afternoon or evening lounging in a semi-vegetative state—unable to do much more than change the channel.

You've heard that this is called a "food coma," but is a food coma a real thing? Yes, as it turns out. Food coma, also known as postprandial somnolence or sleepiness, is a real condition that has been studied by scientists.

While the cause of after-meal sluggishness is up for debate, there is no confusion about the symptoms: laziness and heaviness, usually accompanied by bloating and a feeling of tightness in the belly.

Causes of Food Coma

There are different theories about the causes of postprandial somnolence. Researchers have studied the condition for years, but don't necessarily agree on why the condition occurs.

Eating Foods With Tryptophan

Have you ever experienced a food coma after Thanksgiving dinner? Many health experts attribute this post-meal slump to the high levels of L-tryptophan (commonly called "tryptophan") in turkey. Tryptophan is an amino acid found in certain meat and dairy products.

When this amino acid is consumed along with carbohydrate-rich foods (like mashed potatoes and stuffing), it easily enters the brain and boosts serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that decreases arousal, so you're likely to feel more relaxed and even lazy when serotonin levels are elevated.

Tryptophan and serotonin also play a key role in the production of melatonin in the body. Melatonin is a hormone that helps the body prepare for sleep.

Changes in Blood Flow to the Brain

Some health experts say that postprandial somnolence is caused by a slight shift in blood flow away from the brain to the digestive organs. Eating activates your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

The PNS regulates body functions like heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion. The PNS is triggered when the stomach expands from eating a big meal. As a result of PNS signals, blood flow is directed more to the working digestive organs and less to the brain. This slight blood flow diversion may cause you to feel sleepy and tired.

High-Fat or High-Calorie Meals

Some researchers have questioned both the tryptophan theory and the link between blood flow changes and food coma. Instead, they propose that eating a meal that is high in fat and low in carbohydrates can cause post-meal sleepiness.

In one small study, researchers found higher levels of cholecystokinin (CCK, a hormone that suppresses hunger) after their test subjects ate a fatty, low carb meal. They suggest a link between the release of CCK and the onset of sleepiness because higher levels of CCK has been shown to induce sleep in rats.

Other researchers have proposed that a complex combination of satiety signals is sent to important sleep centers in your brain after eating a solid meal that is high in fat and/or high in calories. The signals decrease arousal and hunger signals in the brain and increase sleepiness.

Prevention

If you want to avoid landing on the couch for hours after your next indulgent meal, there are a few guidelines you can follow.

Eat Smaller Meals That Include Liquids

Large meals are more likely to induce a food coma. In addition, most experts agree that solid foods may induce that familiar feeling of after-meal sleepiness. If you want to stay alert after lunch or dinner, it might help to consume a smaller meal and make part of it liquid (such as soup or a smoothie).

Get Enough Sleep 

If you plan to drive after a big meal, make sure you are well-rested prior to eating. One study of drivers who got behind the wheel after eating a big lunch found that a larger meal made inherent sleepiness worse. That means that if the driver was already sleepy, eating the big meal made it much more exaggerated.

Balance Macronutrients

Even though they disagree on the mechanism in action, researchers seem to agree that fatty meals are more likely to make you sleepy in the hours after eating. If you build balanced meals around a moderate intake of protein and carbohydrate with a small amount of healthy fat, then you may be less likely to fall victim to ​a food coma.

Control Your Portions

Keeping portion sizes in control should help keep food coma at bay. A single portion of meat or fish is just three to four ounces. A single portion of starchy carbohydrates is one cup, or about the size of your fist. A single serving of fat is usually one to two tablespoons.

Get Active After Your Meal

Increase circulation and stimulate your muscles after a big meal with a short walk or activity session. While any activity can help burn calories, it may also help invigorate your body to keep food coma symptoms at bay.

A Word From Verywell

While food coma isn't comfortable, an occasional episode of postprandial somnolence isn't likely to cause harm. In fact, it may remind you to stick to smaller, less fatty meals next time. So rest after your big meal if you need to. Then use moderate food practices most of the time to keep your body healthy, active, and alert.

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