What is the ‘festive food coma’ and how to avoid it according to the expert.
Our resident sleep expert has revealed the ‘food coma’ is a very real thing and has offered her advice on how to beat the post-dinner slump this Christmas.
You’ve waited all this time for Christmas day to arrive, and end up spending the afternoon in a gluttony-induced snooze on the sofa, commonly known as the ‘food coma’. After the all-important ritual of turkey with all the trimmings, the threat of a food coma is a very real thing.
But while most of us have experienced sluggishness after gorging on an abundance of roast potatoes and festive chocolates, the reason why is often misunderstood.
Our sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan explains: “We’ve all done it; a typical Christmas day scenario when the presents have been unwrapped and we’ve eaten a delicious meal only to nod off in a comfy chair in front of the TV.
“While this might sound like a nice cosy scenario, the reality is that many people end up feeling uncomfortable, bloated, ill and even spaced out as a result of consuming all of these calories. So many people say to me that they ended up actually missing out on some of Christmas day as a result of falling into this ‘food coma’.”
A food coma – also known as Postprandial somnolence – is typically defined as a state of drowsiness or lethargy after a meal.
When we eat, the stomach produces a hormone called gastrin that promotes the secretion of digestive juices. As the food enters the small intestine, the cells in the gut secrete even more hormones (enterogastrone) that signal other bodily functions, including blood flow regulation. The process causes sleepiness, as while meals are digested, more blood is diverted away from the brain and other organs to the stomach and gut in an attempt to transport the absorbed newly digested metabolites away. This leaves less blood for the rest of the body and can cause some people to feel light-headed or sleepy.
And Dr Nerina says it’s not just the amount of food we eat, it also depends on the type of food we put into our bodies in one sitting.
Loading up on fat and carbohydrates causes the nutrient content of the food to become imbalanced, therefore we are more likely to feel sluggish and sleepy after eating.
This is because meals high in carbohydrates also have a high glycaemic index – meaning they release sugar into the bloodstream quickly. This causes an increase in the hormone insulin, which promotes the absorption and use of glucose from the bloodstream after a meal.
However, this is not the case when nutrients are balanced or the meal is rich in protein. This is because meals high in carbohydrates that also have a high glycaemic index (meaning they release sugar into the bloodstream quickly) cause an increase in the hormone insulin. Insulin promotes the absorption and use of glucose from the bloodstream after a meal. But it also allows the entry of a special amino acid (we get these from the digestion of proteins), called tryptophan, into the brain.
Tryptophan is converted into another chemical in the brain called serotonin, a signalling chemical or neurotransmitter that can cause sleepiness – hence that drugged post-Christmas dinner feeling. And there are other hormones involved: gut hormones called enterogastrones, are released when we eat and some of these hormones – especially one called CCK or cholecystokinin – can directly make us sleepy by influencing the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin and melatonin.
How can you beat the infamous Xmas food coma?
So what should you do to avoid nodding off after a meal? Here are a few suggestions from Silentnight’s sleep expert Dr Nerina:
1. Don’t over eat; I know it’s Christmas day but watch your portion size. Allow time during your meal for the level of your body’s natural hormones leptin (which reduces hunger) to rise and ghrelin (normally only released when we initiate eating) to fall, thereby lowering your appetite and inducing a feeling of satiety.
2. Slow down your rate of eating – put your knife and fork down between each mouthful. Drink a glass of water before you start eating – this will pre-stretch your stomach fooling your brain into thinking you’re more full than you actually are.
3. Don’t skip breakfast in the hope that you’ll be saving on the calories – eating a big meal when you’re in starvation mode actually makes you more sleepy, tends to promote over eating and more fat storage.
4. Balance your meal; have protein and carbohydrate in roughly a one-to-two proportion. Load up on the veggies and have less of the high-fat sauces and gravy.
5. Be mindful. It’s easy to get caught up in the festivities and feel like you need to over indulge ‘because it’s Christmas’. Of course it’s the time of year when you want to treat yourself but try not to eat emotionally. Ask yourself ‘am I really hungry?’ This will help reduce the chances of your feeling over stuffed and sleepy.
6. Keep it simple. It’s worth thinking about how much of a spread you actually need this year. We all overbuy ahead of Christmas and are often left with tonnes of leftovers come the 26th. By scaling things back a little, not only will you save a bit of money you’ll be far less likely to over indulge!
8. Walk it off. There is nothing like a family walk on Christmas day. Fresh air and movement will do you the world of good. Head out after the big meal rather than vegging out – your body will thank you for it. As well well as boring off all those calories getting outside is an easy way to boost your vitamin D levels – which will ensure you get a good night’s sleep and wake up fresher on Boxing Day
7. Don’t go to bed on a full stomach. Christmas day is often an all day eating event which leaves many of us heading to bed once the festivities are over with a full stomach. Going to bed overly full will increase fat storage and the sleep you do get won’t be as restorative.
9. Embrace it! If all else fails, accept that it’s Christmas Day, be kind to your ‘food baby’ and start the next day with good intentions. For more advice from Dr Nerina visit www.silentnight.co.uk/sleep-matters/