Sep 26, 2022
It seems like feeling tired after eating defeats the entire point of eating. Food’s supposed to give us energy, right? Yet one of the commonest food complaints is feeling tired after a meal, and specifically after a carb-fest. (Happens after normal meals at work and home, too.)
We’re going to break down this food paradox for you and explain the physiology of food comas. And don’t worry: a little post-meal sleepiness is natural!
Just make sure to stick around for the action steps on how to feel more energized after eating.
Note: This article isn’t medical advice and shouldn’t substitute for a doctor’s visit. If you’re really feeling extremely tired after most meals, you should see a health practitioner.
Once you’ve eaten a high-carb meal and your food is digested into simple sugars, your blood sugar spikes. This spike triggers the pancreas to release insulin, the storage hormone, which clears sugar from the blood.
When eating a balanced meal that’s not too big, your insulin response is minimal. But if your food is carb-heavy (and you’ve eaten a lot), the body can overcompensate with insulin so that your cells don’t get damaged from high blood sugar.
Thing is, that gush of insulin often results in a blood sugar CRASH. And sugar is the brain’s main source of energy.
To make things worse, chronically elevated insulin is associated with reduced mitochondrial function, which limits your energy production on a cellular level.
On the flip-side of the coin, your post-meal drag could be caused by elevated blood sugar.
Let’s say that you’re one of the millions of people who have insulin resistance and don’t know it.
After you’ve eaten a carb-heavy meal, your blood sugar rises. But because your cells are desensitized to insulin from overexposure, your pancreas has to produce more and more insulin to clear the same amount of sugar from the bloodstream.
You may not be classified as diabetic at this point. But your post-meal blood sugar can spike and remain high, and it’s because your cells aren’t responding to insulin the way they should.
This elevated blood sugar bogs down your metabolic engine, so to speak, and reduces your brain’s horsepower.
The digestive process sends blood from your extremities to your core. (It’s called postprandial hyperemia, if you’d like to get nerdy with us for a sec.) This rush of blood energizes your digestive organs and carries nutrients to different parts of the body.
But that shift in blood flow triggers the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system.
As the name implies, this side of the nervous system is also responsible for making you feel sleepy.
So as ‘fight-or-flight’ hormones like cortisol and adrenaline wane during digestion, you’re going to feel less alert(and more like falling apart on the nearest couch).
In the morning, a cup of coffee energizes you. But when that cuppa wears off by the time you’re eating lunch, you can easily confuse your caffeine crash with a food coma.
Caffeine inhibits a sleep-inducing chemical called adenosine, which builds up continuously from the time you wake. When caffeine levels recede, the adenosine molecules rush back in, and you start feeling sleepy.
Since cortisol levels (and alertness) naturally dip between 1–3 p.m., this effect can be doubled in the early afternoon.
Humans adapted to be able to find food even (and especially) when we were hungry. Studies show that fasting increases our overall levels of arousal and alertness; and other studies show that the wakefulness hormone orexin-a is inhibited by eating.[5,6]
It makes sense that our bodies would want us to slow down after eating because we wouldn’t be able to digest our food if we were so jacked from eating that we had to be active. (This would shunt blood away from the digestive tract and back to our extremities, which would kinda defeat the whole point of eating.)
Considering that afternoon siestas are a thing in countless cultures, it’s okay to relax or take a nap after eating sometimes.
Whether it’s the hunter-gatherer genetics or just how our bodies process and digest food, it’s pretty normal to feel tired after a meal. But in our research and experience, maintaining a steady blood glucose can help you stay energized post-meal better than anything. Here’s how you can stay alert:
Eating a fiber-rich salad before a meal makes you feel full faster, so you don’t overindulge (and fall into a food coma). Less food = less insulin. So salads indirectly improve your glucose/insulin response, but they also have a direct effect too.
The enzymes found in fresh leafy greens and other raw vegetables also can prevent carbs from absorbing in the intestines.
In order to break a post-meal slump, sometimes you have to spend energy to have energy.
In one study on 14 women, slow walking for 30 minutes after a carb-rich meal lowered their glucose spikes by an average of 27 mg/dl compared to a sedentary control.
Considering that spikes almost always precede crashes, always go for a quick walk after you eat. Other moderate intensity exercises like easy cycling or mild calisthenics can work really well, too.
Exercise after meals converts blood sugar into energy for movement, and it also increases insulin sensitivity.
To prevent drowsiness after eating, you don’t have to shun carbs altogether. What you can do is pair carbs with protein, fiber, and fat to slow down the absorption of glucose in your intestine, which prevents a spike.
‘Dressing up’ your carbohydrates help you feel full faster, too, while consuming all the essential macronutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins) necessary for life. Fewer carbs lead to lower blood glucose and less insulin!
We buy so much of our food because someone else said it was healthy. But the fact is that the foods your body responds best to are completely different from anyone else, and for many reasons. (Gut health, sleep debt, and genetics being just a few.)
Using the Veri CGM app, you get to see how your blood sugar responds to each meal in real-time, which allows you to find out all the foods and lifestyle habits that either energize you or drag you down.
You also get to see the firsthand impact of walking and exercising after meals, which helps you stick with the habits that increase your energy and improve your metabolic health!
Feeling tired after eating is a complex issue and not altogether avoidable.
But there are certain factors like blood sugar spikes that can turn your semi-sleepiness into a full-blown food coma:
Even though you can’t eliminate postprandial somnolence entirely, you can do several things to feel energized after eating:
The interplay of our hormones, circadian rhythm, and genetics makes us feel tired after eating. (Carbs, in particular, cause more insulin spikes/crashes than other macronutrients.)
But you don’t have to break up with carbs altogether— just ‘dress’ them with healthy fats and protein. At Veri, we’re in love with the idea of being your healthiest self but still being a human.