Sleepy after a big meal? Here's why

The Chinese have many proverbs, but one of the most famous ones is fan hou bai bu zou, huo dao jiu shi jiu (饭后百步走,活到九十九). This translates to, “take 100 steps after dinner and you’ll live to be 99.”

While ancient wisdom is always valuable, many people don’t feel like walking after a big meal, even if it means they’ll live to 99. In fact, after eating, many people feel the opposite of motivated and invigorated—they feel groggy and lethargic.

So why is that, and is it normal? 

Feeling a bit sleepy after eating is indeed normal. That said, there are several things you can do to combat those feelings. 

A brief look at digestion

To understand why food makes you feel the way that it does, it’s important to understand the digestion process.

Your body uses food to provide it with the energy it needs. Our bodies don’t just use energy for physical activity—they use it for everything, including breathing and sleeping.

After you eat a meal, your digestive system breaks it down into fuel in the form of glucose. It extracts macronutrients, like protein, and releases hormones to tell your body that it’s full.

These include amylin, glucagon, and cholecystokinin.

Your blood sugar then rises and your body produces insulin to get the sugar from your blood to your cells. From there, your body uses it as energy.  

What you eat matters

Tryptophan is an amino acid used by your body to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps you sleep (1). Some foods contain higher levels of tryptophan than others and may therefore make you sleepy.

These include:

  • Cheese
  • Tofu
  • Fish
  • Soy 
  • Spinach
  • Eggs

While many people get sleepy on Thanksgiving, turkey actually contains less tryptophan than the foods mentioned above. The Thanksgiving day grogginess comes from alcohol consumption, carbs, and the volume of food consumed, not turkey (2). 

Get some sleep

The next time you feel tired after a meal, ask yourself whether you got enough sleep the night before. Unless you got a full seven hours, then the answer is no, you didn’t. 

Try your best to stick to a regular sleep schedule, and if you have trouble falling asleep at night, avoid taking naps during the afternoon. That said, some studies show that short afternoon naps can help you feel your best.

Being aware of your sleeping habits can help keep you energized until it’s time for bed. 

Stay active

It’s also important to keep track of how active you are throughout the day. Many people spend hours and hours—17 hours, to be exact—starting at electronic screens. Most of the time, they’re not active while doing so.

While you might not be able to quit your job and go live in the woods, you can take regular breaks throughout the day. You can also make a point to stretch or do yoga in the morning.

Studies show that the more you exercise, the greater your energy reserves (3). If you’re feeling groggy each time you eat a meal, think about what you can do to get more active

Speak with your doctor

Feeling drowsy after eating is a normal sensation for most people. With a couple of lifestyle tweaks, it’s not hard to minimize those feelings and feel more energized.

Try your best to get enough sleep, stay active, and maintain a balanced diet. Don’t forget to stay hydrated, as well!

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