How To Avoid Sluggishness After Lunch

By Winnie Ong Hui Dhing

Do you often find yourself nodding off in front of the computer or during a long, dreary meeting after having a satisfying lunch?

Drowsiness takes over and you struggle ineffectually against the drooping of heavy eyelids — jerking awake at intervals from the black hole of sleep.

If you’re guilty of this (don’t worry, we won’t tell!) here’s a look at the mysteries of post-lunch sluggishness and what you can do to overcome it.

Why does it happen?

The phenomenon of post-lunch sleepiness is not caused by a re-distribution of blood flow from the brain to the gut – this is a myth. So what causes this slump in the afternoon?

The biology of our sleep-wake cycle plays a big part. We have two peaks of sleepiness that are regulated by homeostatic and circadian cycles in our body — one of which occurs in the afternoon for people who sleep at night.

When it senses a full stomach, the body activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which coordinates ‘rest and digest’ responses. Generally the larger the meal, the greater the body will shift toward the parasympathetic system from the wakefulness of the sympathetic system (often known as the ‘fight or flight’ responses) to help in digestion.

Another factor is what you eat. Consumption of high glycemic-index (GI) carbohydrates causes glucose to be released quickly into the blood. Insulin is then released to counter this dramatic rise in blood sugar levels. The increase in insulin leads to an amino acid called tryptophan being taken up by the brain to synthesise serotonin and melatonin, which are chemical messengers that help us sleep.

Now that we know this process is entirely natural and intrinsic to how our body works, shun the shame and read on to discover how you can fight the after-lunch “shut eye syndrome.”

8 Simple Stay Awake Strategies

1.  Avoid overeating. Eat a small pre-meal snack in the form of fruit slices, cherry tomatoes or carrot/celery sticks to stave off hunger pangs and to put you off from eating huge lunches.

2. Take a slow walk back to the office after lunch. If you still find yourself nodding off, get up from your seat to move around or do simple stretching exercises.

3. Choose low-GI foods. You can substitute white rice with low-GI brown rice, buckwheat noodles or wholegrain bread/pasta. Low-GI foods release sugar into the bloodstream over continuous intervals rather than in one go. You can also replace potatoes for sweet corn, yam or legumes (beans and pulses). Also, pumpkin, carrots, peas, parsnips and beetroot are less starchy (and low GI) alternatives. Minimise your intake of refined carbohydrates and starchy foods too.

4. Eat smaller, balanced meals at more frequent intervals. Take five smaller meals rather than three large meals throughout the day.

5. Keep your mind active! Engage in conversations and work that keep your mind awake. Listen to playlists of songs with a fast beat and catchy pop/rock tunes. Think of this as a good opportunity to get into electronic pop, hip-hop or punk rock.

6. Get enough sleep so that your body’s circadian rhythm is not disrupted, which leads to afternoon sleepiness. Try and wake up at the same time each day, and establish a regular bedtime.

7. Skip the soft drink, sugary beverage or dessert in favour of fruits if you tend to desire something sweet with your lunch.

8. Take a power nap if it is possible, in order to re-energise yourself for the rest of the day. Feeling sleepy after lunch is a normal aspect of the body’s internal biological cycles, and if napping for 15-20 minutes can banish sluggishness and improve quality of work for the rest of the day, don’t feel ashamed to do it.

Fun Fact About Afternoon Naps

The siesta  — essentially a break taken after the midday meal that often included a short nap — originated from Portugal. This tradition was adopted by Spain and Latin American countries to avoid the hottest part of the day and the effects of heavy lunches, among other cultural reasons. Unfortunately, this delightful little tradition is being set aside in the modern, industrialised world.

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