We’ve all felt it — that drowsy feeling that sneaks in after a meal. You’re full and relaxed and struggling to keep your eyes open. Why are meals so often followed by a sudden urge to take a nap, and should you be concerned about it?
In general, a little bit of sleepiness after eating is completely normal and nothing to worry about. There are several factors that contribute to this post-meal phenomenon, and there are a few things you might be able to do to minimize those drowsy effects.
- Your digestion cycle plays a crucial role in converting food into energy, triggering various responses in your body.
- Foods rich in tryptophan, like turkey and certain proteins, may induce sleepiness due to increased serotonin production.
- Factors like cherries, carbohydrates, and minerals in bananas can also impact melatonin levels, blood sugar, and muscle relaxation.
- Quality sleep, regular exercise, and overall physical activity levels influence how you feel after meals.
- Underlying health conditions such as diabetes, food intolerances, and allergies may contribute to post-meal tiredness.
Your digestion cycle
Your body needs energy to function—not just to run after your dog or put in time at the gym—but to breathe and simply exist. We get this energy from our food.
Food is broken down into fuel (glucose) by our digestive system. Macronutrients such as protein then provide calories (energy) to our bodies. More than just changing food into energy, our digestive cycle triggers all kinds of responses within our body.
Hormones such as cholecystokinin , glucagon, and amylin are released to increase a feeling of fullness (satiety), blood sugar rises, and insulin is produced to allow this sugar to go from the blood and into the cells, where it’s used for energy.
Though all foods are digested in much the same manner, not all foods affect your body in the same way. Some foods can make you sleepier than others.
Foods with tryptophan
The amino acid tryptophan is found in turkey and other high-protein foods such as:
Tryptophan is used by the body to create serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It’s possible that increased production of serotonin is responsible for that post-meal haze.
Cherries affect melatonin levels, carbohydrates cause a spike and subsequent fall in blood sugar, and the minerals in bananas relax your muscles. Any one of these factors could leave you sleepy and many foods can impact energy levels in different ways.
Your sleeping habits
It’s no surprise that not getting enough quality sleep can affect how you feel after a meal, too. If you’re relaxed and full, your body may feel more like resting, especially if you didn’t get enough sleep the night before.
Your physical activity
Beyond helping you sleep better at night, exercise can keep you alert during the day, minimizing the risk of a post-meal slump. Multiple studies have found that regular exercise helps increase energy and reduce fatigue.
In other words, being sedentary doesn’t create some sort of energy reserve that you can tap into at will. Instead, being active helps ensure that you have the energy to push through your days.
Other health conditions
On rare occasions, being tired after a meal or simply sleepy all the time could be a sign of another health problem. Conditions that can make post-meal drowsiness worse include:
- food intolerance or food allergy
- sleep apnea
- underactive thyroid
- celiac disease
If you’re frequently tired and have one of these conditions, talk to your doctor about possible solutions. If you’re unaware of an underlying medical condition but have other symptoms in addition to post-meal sleepiness, your doctor can help you identify what’s causing the slump.
If someone with prediabetes or Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes feels tired after eating, it could be a symptom of hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia.
Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) may occur when too many sugars are consumed. It’s made worse if there’s inefficient or insufficient insulin to transport sugars to the cells for energy.
Sugars are the cells’ main source of energy, which explains why inefficient or insufficient insulin may leave you feeling tired. Other symptoms associated with hyperglycemia may include increased urination and thirst.
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) may occur due to consuming simple carbohydrates that are quickly digestible. These carbohydrates can make blood sugar levels spike and then crash in a short amount of time.
Hypoglycemia can also occur in someone with diabetes who has taken more insulin or other diabetes-specific medication than needed based on the foods they consumed. Sleepiness can be one primary symptom of hypoglycemia, along with:
- dizziness or weakness
Both hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia are serious medical conditions, especially for people with diabetes. They should be treated immediately as directed by your doctor.
Food intolerance or food allergies
An intolerance of or an allergy to certain foods can be ano
ther cause of post-meal tiredness. Food intolerances and allergies can impact digestion or other bodily functions.
Other acute or chronic symptoms may also be present, including gastrointestinal upset, skin conditions, and headache or migraine.
Preventing post-meal sleepiness
Regularly feeling tired after eating is something to discuss with your doctor. However, if the possibility of a more serious underlying condition has been ruled out or the fatigue only sets in occasionally, there are simple steps you can take to help maintain optimal energy levels.
Dietary and lifestyle habits that may help boost or sustain energy levels and counteract drowsiness include:
- drinking water to stay properly hydrated
- consuming appropriate electrolytes
- reducing the amount of food eaten at a single meal
- getting enough quality sleep
- exercising regularly
- limiting or avoiding alcohol
- modulating caffeine consumption
eating foods that are good for your gut, blood sugar, insulin levels, and brain — including complex, high-fiber carbohydrates and healthy fats
A balanced diet that includes foods such as vegetables, whole grains, and fatty fish promotes sustained energy. Try to incorporate more nuts, seeds, and olive oil into your meals.
Avoiding too much sugar and eating smaller, more frequent meals can also help.
The bottom line
The complex interplay of factors affecting post-meal tiredness can empower you to make lifestyle and dietary choices that enhance your overall energy levels. Consult with your doctor if persistent fatigue raises concerns about underlying health conditions.