Most people have felt their eyelids get heavy shortly after a large meal. Whether it’s a holiday feast or a weekend brunch, it’s natural to wonder what exactly causes sleepiness after eating. Fortunately, post-meal tiredness may not be a cause for concern if it doesn’t interfere with a person’s work, school, or social life.
However, in some cases, a post-lunch dip in energy can have consequences for workplace productivity and raise the risk of accidents, including car crashes. In addition, excessive sleepiness is sometimes caused by an underlying health problem or sleep disorder.
Whether drowsiness sets in after a meal can depend on multiple factors including when, how much, and what a person eats. Learning more about postprandial sleepiness can make it easier to understand why people get tired after a meal, foods that may cause drowsiness, and ways to reduce sleepiness after eating.
What Is Postprandial Sleepiness?
Postprandial sleepiness, also called postprandial somnolence, refers to the feeling of sleepiness after consuming food. It is sometimes known as the post-lunch dip or referred to more informally as a “food coma.”
What Causes Postprandial Sleepiness?
Researchers are not exactly sure why it is common for people to get sleepy after eating. Studies suggest that multiple factors may influence energy levels after a meal, including changes in hormones, blood flow, brain chemicals, inflammation, and the body’s internal clock.
The composition of a meal can affect whether a person feels sleepy after eating. A big meal may be more likely to cause sleepiness, and certain foods and nutrients can have an impact as well. Research has found that meals that are high in fat, carbohydrates, or calories may increase sleepiness.
Other factors that may play a role in postprandial sleepiness include a person’s meal timing, work schedule, overall health, exposure to daylight, and body composition. Post-meal drowsiness may also be a symptom of excessive daytime sleepiness, which can occur as a result of poor sleep at night from insomnia or another sleep issue.
With so many factors involved, it is challenging to identify any single cause of postprandial sleepiness. Instead, there are many potential reasons why drowsiness sets in after eating, and those reasons can change based on the person and their meal.
Foods That Can Make You Sleepy
More research is necessary to understand how daytime sleepiness is affected by different nutrients and foods. Additionally, many studies about diet and sleep focus on nighttime sleep, which is distinct from a daytime energy dip. Nevertheless, some types of foods may be more likely to trigger sleepiness.
- High-fat foods: It’s common to think of fat-laden foods as rich and heavy, which may lead to more post-meal tiredness.
- High-carbohydrate foods: In addition to fat, some research has found that meals with large amounts of carbohydrates increase the perceived amount of postprandial fatigue.
- Foods containing tryptophan: Tryptophan is an amino acid that is linked to a number of sleep-promoting processes in the brain. Turkey contains high levels of tryptophan, so it is famously blamed for sleepiness after Thanksgiving dinner. Other foods with tryptophan include milk, bananas, oats, and chocolate. While tryptophan alone may not always cause sleepiness, its effects are enhanced when eaten with carbohydrates.
- Tart cherries: Small studies have found tart cherries to be associated with improved nighttime sleep. Certain kinds of sour cherries contain tryptophan and melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep, as well as other active ingredients that may promote sleep.
- Nuts: Walnuts, pistachios, and other nuts have some of the highest melatonin levels of plant foods. Given the effects of melatonin on sleep, eating a significant amount of nuts may induce a feeling of drowsiness.
While these foods may promote postprandial sleepiness, not everyone will feel fatigue after eating them since various factors influence how the body reacts to a meal.
Other Reasons You Get Sleepy After Eating
Aside from the nutritional makeup of meals, there are other factors that contribute to feeling sleepy after eating.
Circadian Rhythm and Sleep Patterns
Many aspects of sleep and wakefulness are regulated by the body’s 24-hour internal clock, also known as its circadian rhythm. This rhythm can affect energy levels over the course of the day, which often involves a post-lunch dip that can cause sleepiness.
In addition, the propensity to fall asleep changes throughout the day. Most people experience the greatest sleepiness before bed but also have an increased desire to sleep near midday. This often occurs in the early afternoon, which is after many people eat lunch. Several factors can influence when and how much this dip in energy occurs, including whether someone tends to be a morning or evening person.
Disrupted Sleep at Night
Drowsiness after lunch may be exacerbated by a broader problem of excessive sleepiness throughout the day. This tendency to feel extremely tired or doze off at inappropriate times can have many causes, including a failure to get enough quality sleep at night.
Excessive daytime sleepiness can also be caused by sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea as well as medical conditions that interfere with nightly sleep.
Alcohol is known to have a sleep-inducing effect. As a result, consuming alcohol with a meal may make post-meal sluggishness more likely. Some research suggests that people who do not get enough sleep at night are more susceptible to drowsiness if they drink alcohol during the day.
Even though alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep, it worsens sleep quality and can make it less likely for sleep to be restorative.
Underlying Health Conditions
Feeling sleepy after a meal can be linked to certain health conditions that may cause fatigue after eating or throughout the day.
- Diabetes: Diabetes is a condition marked by elevated blood sugar, which is called hyperglycemia. Blood sugar rises after a meal, and a potential consequence of hyperglycemia is fatigue.
- Low Blood Sugar: Some people have health conditions that cause very low blood sugar levels after eating, known as postprandial hypoglycemia. This can trigger a range of symptoms, including weakness and drowsiness.
- Anemia: Anemia is a condition where red blood cells fail to carry the necessary amount of oxygen through the body. Individuals with anemia frequently experience tiredness and fatigue, which may occur at many times, including after a meal.
- Thyroid Problems: People with an underactive thyroid gland are prone to have fatigue that can affect them at various points during the day.
- Low Blood Pressure: Postprandial hypotension, or low blood pressure after a meal, affects people with certain health conditions and is more common in older adults. Fatigue is one potential symptom of this drop in blood pressure.
- Use of Certain Medications: Some types of medicines can cause drowsiness, so depending on when a person takes their medications, they may experience sleepiness after a meal.
Is It Normal To Get Sleepy After Eating?
Post-meal drowsiness is common and may be influenced by a person’s internal clock and physiological response to a meal. However, postprandial sleepiness that interferes with daily life and responsibilities may be a sign of a problem.
In addition, extreme fatigue or sleepiness that occurs several times a day could be an indication of sleep problems or another health condition. Anyone concerned about their post-meal sleepiness or general daytime alertness should talk with a medical professional for individualized guidance.
How to Prevent Sleepiness After Eating
Although there’s no sure-fire way to prevent postprandial sleepiness, there are some practical steps that may help people stay awake and alert after eating.
Being aware of both the quantity and nutritional composition of a meal may help avoid postprandial sleepiness. While dietary needs and responses to food can vary from person to person, it may help to avoid large and heavy meals that can increase the urge to doze off after eating.
Individuals can take note of any foods or types of meals, such as high-fat or high-carb meals, that seem to have the biggest effect on their postprandial sleepiness. Being mindful about alcohol consumption may also help prevent dips in alertness after meals.
Take a Quick Nap
Another strategy for avoiding the post-lunch dip is to take a quick nap. Several research studies have found that people who take naps of 15 to 45 minutes shortly after a meal feel less sleepy and more alert. However, it is important not to nap for too long because this can actually lead to greater sleepiness.
Seek Out Bright Light
Taking a nap after a meal may not always be an option, especially for students and people at work. In that case, seeking out bright light may be a good alternative. Exposure to bright light may have a similar effect as a nap on postprandial sleepiness with the ability to improve alertness.
Improve Nightly Sleep
Getting sufficient sleep at night can reduce excessive daytime sleepiness, which may translate to less drowsiness after a meal.
Improving sleep often starts with better sleep hygiene, which refers to habits that affect nightly rest. Having a steady sleep schedule, making the bedroom dark, quiet, and comfortable, and limiting caffeine intake late in the day are examples of steps to enhance sleep hygiene.
Avoid Eating Too Late at Night
While sleepiness after a meal is often associated with lunch, it can occur with dinner, too, especially when dinner is eaten late in the evening.
Some people may be inclined to have a late dinner, but research suggests that eating soon before bed can disrupt healthy sleep patterns. A late dinner has also been associated with a higher risk of health problems like obesity and metabolic syndrome.
Post-meal sleepiness may be related to general daytime fatigue. Some research has found that regular exercise can lower fatigue. It’s always wise to consult with a health care provider before beginning a new exercise plan, but finding a way to get regular physical activity may improve energy levels.
Water intake is another factor that affects energy and fatigue. Both dehydration and hyperhydration can result in feelings of fatigue and tiredness. Taking steps to stay properly hydrated may help the body maintain a more consistent level of alertness and energy, including after meals.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
Postprandial sleepiness is common, but there are circumstances in which it may be linked to a more serious condition. People should talk with a doctor if there are signs of excessive or problematic sleepiness, such as:
- Postprandial sleepiness that interferes with work, school, or social obligations
- Drowsiness that occurs when driving or operating heavy machinery
- Excessive tiredness or falling asleep at multiple points during the day
- Postprandial sleepiness accompanied by other symptoms or health changes
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