Food science is often seen as complicated and confusing, and it isn’t hard to see why. The diet industry is constantly coming up with new ways to slim down, sleep better, and improve energy, but they often leave you sluggish and frustrated.
So, really, why do we feel tired after a meal?
The Eating and Sleeping Oxymoron
Leading sleep and nutrition experts mostly agree on two things: eating before bed will keep you up at night, and eating a big meal will make you sleepy. How can both be true at once?
After you consume a meal, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in because your body assumes you’re in a state of rest. Blood is pumped directly to the digestive system, which almost doubles the amount that’s already there. This naturally makes you feel relaxed or tired.
However, feeling exhausted isn’t normal. If you eat too much of the wrong foods (i.e., spicy meals) or eat until you’re very full, you’ll overwork your digestive tract. This could cause fatigue, but you still may be unable to sleep due to stomach disturbances, among other things.
Why You May Be Tired After Eating
While feeling a little sleepy after a meal isn’t a cause for alarm, you don’t have to be exhausted after eating.
Here are 5 reasons why you may be tired after a meal and how to fix it.
1. Circadian Rhythm and Afternoon Sleepiness
If you’re sleeping after a meal, your circadian rhythm may be out of whack. It’s normal to feel sleepy around 2 pm to 4 pm as a part of a “regular” circadian rhythm (awake when the sun rises, sleepy when it sets), but your circadian rhythm may be different than your peers.
How to Fix a Circadian Rhythm: Light, color, shift work, travel, and unhealthy sleeping habits can disrupt your circadian rhythm. If you want to put it back on track, have a regular bedtime.
2. Meat Heavy Meals and Your Digestion
There’s a giant misconception in the diet industry that meat gives you more energy because it’s full of protein, which keeps you fuller longer. This is only half true. While protein does stay in your digestive tract longer, it needs unprocessed carbs to be both energizing and filling.
Meat is accompanied by fat, so if you’re eating too much of it, you’ll actually feel more tired and dehydrated than if you just ate pure fruits and vegetables. A meat-heavy diet can also increase your risk of cancer, cardiovascular illnesses, and obesity, which affect your digestion and sleep.
How to Fix a Meat Heavy Diet: Meat can take as long as 2 days to fully digest, whereas high fiber foods, like fruits and vegetables, move through your system in less than a day. High fiber foods can help your digestive tract run more efficiently, in general, so load up on your carbs.
3. Processed Carbs and Your Digestion
While unprocessed carbs like fruits and vegetables will give you energy, processed carbs go through your digestive tract so quickly that you’ll crash right after you consume them. That’s because your insulin spikes significantly after eating processed carbs, making you feel sick.
How to Fix a High Processed Carb Diet: Try to add inexpensive staples to your diet without much spices, like oatmeal, rice, and beans, which are easy to cook and go well with most meals.
4. Chronic Pain or Autoimmune Disorders
Some disorders will make it difficult for you to absorb nutrients, while others may make it hard for you to get to sleep due to chronic pain. These often intersect. For example, someone with celiac disease will feel fatigued and sick after eating gluten, which could keep them up at night.
How to Work With Chronic Pain or Illness: You can live a more comfortable, more energetic life if you follow a diet that may help your illness. Speak to a registered dietitian if you need help.
5. Too Much Alcohol and/or Caffeine
There are a few ingredients that naturally help you achieve a restful sleep. Examples include tryptophan (found in spinach, nuts, and dates) and magnesium (found in bananas, avocados, and leafy greens). However, alcohol and caffeine will not produce the same effect.
Caffeine naturally wakes you up, but too much of it can cause your morning coffee buzz to drop around lunchtime. Alcohol can actually help you sleep, but the sleep you get won’t be restful. In fact, alcohol can severely disrupt your circadian rhythm and induce insomnia-like symptoms.
How to Fix a Caffeine and Alcohol Prevalent Diet: While you don’t have to cut these items out of your life, you should reduce the amount you drink. Don’t use alcohol as a sleep aid. If you feel you may have an addiction to alcohol, seek professional help as soon as possible.