Everyone has experienced that tired, sluggish feeling after a festive celebratory meal. All you can think about doing is laying back on the couch, loosening your belt, and taking a nap.
For some, that same feeling happens after any big meal. But why does that happen, on a biological level? Can anything be done about it, or just to boost energy levels in general?
How does the body’s digestive system normally work?
Like every other part of the body, the digestive system needs energy to function. This energy can only be obtained by consuming food, which is why what we choose to put into our bodies matters so much.
When we eat, that food is processed and broken down by the digestive system until it gets to its final product… glucose. Other parts of food, like macronutrients (a substance required in large quantities by the body for normal growth and development), go on to provide our body with the calories (energy) that it needs to go about all of our daily functions of life; not only moving around, but also breathing and having your heart beat in a normal rhythm.
In addition to processing food, the digestive system is also responsible for triggering other responses from our body as well.
For instance, there are hormones released in response to the digestive system that make us feel full (also known as satiety), specifically, the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK, located in the central nervous system), amylin (located in the pancreas), and glucagon (also located in the pancreas).
The digestive system is also behind the rise in blood sugar the body experiences after eating or drinking, as well as the production of the insulin needed to move glucose from the bloodstream into the cells where it is used for energy.
Is this normal?
The first question people ask when they notice that they are feeling more tired than usual after eating a meal is, is this normal?
The short answer to that question is that, while it is a common feeling, it is not actually “normal” in the sense that it’s not the response your body should be experiencing.
Some tiredness, especially after a big meal, is definitely considered normal. As our bodies work to digest food, they reroute blood from other body systems into the digestive system, which is part of what causes that overall feeling of sleepiness. It may also trigger the release of specific hormones, like serotonin, that can cause drowsiness. In some cases, the foods we eat may also trigger the production of melatonin, which is a hormone well known for inducing sleep.
While feeling a little tired after a meal is normal, feeling excessively tired may be a symptom of a larger issue that should be evaluated by a medical professional. Digestive health should always be taken seriously.
Your diet may be to blame
In a lot of cases, feeling excessively tired after eating a meal is tied directly to the foods you are eating. All foods are digested through the same process, but that doesn’t mean that they all affect the body in the same way.
Foods that are high in an essential amino acid called tryptophan (you may be familiar with this amino acid because of its inclusion in turkey and the “Thanksgiving meal” effect) may be responsible for that sluggish feeling after eating. Tryptophan is used by the body to help create serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that, among other things, helps to induce sleep. It isn’t actually the tryptophan that makes people feel tired after Thanksgiving dinner, it’s the increased production of serotonin that can happen as a result of it.
It isn’t always turkey that is responsible for this serotonin overload. Other foods, specifically those high in protein, can also cause the same issue. This includes spinach, eggs, tofu, fish, soy, and cheese, but they must be consumed in fairly high quantities to cause this reaction.
It pays to take a good, close look at your normal diet to see if you may be simply consuming too many foods known to be high in tryptophan.
Using supplementation to help with any potential vitamin and mineral deficiencies may also be helpful in certain situations. A focus on eating whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, fatty fish, healthy fats (like nuts and olive oil) and complex, high-fiber carbohydrates are great not only for gut health, but also potentially good for insulin levels and brain health.
Your cells may need a little extra help producing energy
After you consume food, eventually, the fuel it provides makes its way to your cells’ powerplants, called the mitochondria. The mitochondria are the main components for manufacturing energy, so if the mitochondria aren’t up and running at their best capacity, it can mean tiredness for us as a whole.
An important part of mitochondria is a nutrient called Coenzyme Q10, often shortened to CoQ10. CoQ10 supports energy production and helps protects mitochondria from free radical damage. While most of us have enough CoQ10 levels in our bodies when we’re young and healthy, simply getting older can actually decrease our body’s natural levels, reducing the available CoQ10 to support mitochondria, ultimately potentially lessening our ability to efficiently produce energy.
This is where CoQ10 supplements can help. MitoQ is a modified form of CoQ10 that more easily passes through the mitochondrial membrane so it can provide energy level support right where it’s needed, resulting in the support of healthy aging and overall cellular health!
Look at your sleep schedule
While sleep doesn’t directly affect the way that you feel specifically after a meal, it does impact it indirectly. If your body isn’t running on enough sleep, it just feels sluggish and tired. When energy demands are highest, like when it is trying to digest food, it is going to feel even more run down. That’s why quality sleep is such an important factor.
In addition, lack of sleep has been seen to potentially correlate with weight gain. Sleeping too little can increase feelings of hunger, not only for food in general, but specifically for foods that are high in carbohydrates. Some research has shown that that may be directly related to the release of two hormones that affect and increase appetite - ghrelin and leptin.
What else should I do if I’m feeling tired after I eat?
One of the best places for anyone to start, in addition to calling your doctor for a physical exam, is to start keeping a food diary. Food diaries are a very simple, easy way for anyone to better figure out what of their diet is the source of any of their health issues.
Food diaries should include a number of different factors for a well-rounded approach. To begin, they should always include every single thing that you eat or drink for that entire day. In addition to what you are eating, you should also make sure to document how much you ate or drank.
Next to those entries, keep notes on how you feel after you eat or drink those items. Make sure to pay specific attention to your energy level, mood, gastrointestinal activity, etc. That information alone may be the most helpful to diagnosing diet-related issues. At the beginning of each day, make a note about your sleep quality as well.
Once you’ve compiled at least a few days’ worth of information, talk to your general health practitioner about it, and see if you can come up with any reasons for the way you’ve been feeling. They may want to order tests, commonly things like a hemoglobin A1C (to check for your average blood sugar levels), glucose tolerance testing, and potential blood and or skin allergen testing.
Ways to potentially help reduce post meal sluggishness
If you have seen your primary care doctor and any medical condition has been ruled out, there are a few other things that you should try to see if may make a difference in your energy level.
- Regularly taking an energy supplement
- Drinking the recommended amount of water daily (2-3 liters depending on activity level)
- Monitoring your electrolyte consumption (found in foods like bananas and sweet potatoes)
- Eating less at each meal
- Getting regular exercise
- Limiting your alcohol consumption, or avoiding it entirely
- Decreasing your caffeine consumption daily
Focusing on a well-rounded approach to managing post-meal fatigue, including discussing symptoms with a doctor, is the best way to feel better while also taking your health seriously.
Many people will feel tired after they eat at some point in their lives. However, if that sluggishness continues for an extended period of time, or if it seems to be happening every single time that you eat, it’s time to see a doctor. It may be a result of your daily diet, your sleep schedule, or even a potential health condition that may need to be treated.
You may even want to consider energy supplements to help improve your overall health and feelings of energy. You don’t have to deal with fatigue after every meal. Take charge today!