Six Tips for Avoiding the Thanksgiving Food Coma

Thanksgiving is a holiday full of gratitude and gluttony! It’s a time to give thanks and indulge in some of our favorite holiday dishes. From turkey to stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy to pies, we are inundated with some of the year’s most delicious delicacies.

Key takeaways:
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    Thanksgiving is a time of thanks and a time of indulgence.
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    Indulgence is one of the many pleasures of the holiday season, however, for some, this pleasure results in pain beyond a sense of fatigue.
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    Postprandial somnolence, the medical term for a “food coma”, is directly associated with the way food impacts our nervous system and, therefore, our digestion and energy.
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    If you’ve experienced the Thanksgiving food coma, there are easy and simple ways you can avoid it at this year’s feast.

The only issue is how this kind of eating can make us feel. We’ve all heard of the holiday food coma, an experience that can often lead to more than just feeling sleepy. If you experience feelings of brain fog, mood changes, and indigestion, along with your need to snooze, you’ll want to keep reading as we explore ways you can prevent the Thanksgiving food coma.

Thanksgiving is the biggest meal of the year for many Americans. We gather with family and friends to show gratitude for the bounty we have created, indulging all day in some of our favorite dishes. Unfortunately, for many of us, this indulgence comes at a cost — often feeling bloated, drained, uncomfortable, and sluggish. We’ve all lovingly referred to this as the holiday “food coma” and have come to expect this as part of the holiday experience.

When food is the focus of the day, we tend to overeat things that aren’t usually in our regular diets. For example, foods high in carbohydrates, processed sugars, salt, and saturated fats can leave us feeling full beyond our usual capacity. Add in a few alcoholic and/or high-sugar drinks (like sodas and juices), and we create the perfect storm for a food coma.

Postprandial somnolence is the medical term for a “food coma”. It is directly associated with the way food impacts our nervous system and, therefore, our digestion and energy. So, what happens in our bodies to cause a food coma?

What is a food coma, and why does it happen?

Postprandial somnolence can be difficult to study. Why? This is due to biodiversity or the biological diversity of each of us. Biodiversity is a combination of our unique genetics, environments, and cultures that impact how our bodies and minds function. Biodiversity explains why your mom might need a nap after your Thanksgiving meal, but your brother seems relatively unaffected by the same meal. Because everyone’s biology is so unique, it can be difficult to pin down exactly what causes food comas as it can be different for each person.

Although we don’t know exactly what causes food comas, some of the most common theories have found a link to our nervous systems. Because the nervous system tells our digestive tract what to do and what brain chemicals to make, it makes sense that scientists focus here when studying food comas and their effects.

The nervous system has two main parts:

  1. “Fight or flight” or Sympathetic Nervous System — it responds to our daily stresses and stimulations, keeping us on high alert and in problem-solving mode.
  2. “Rest and Digest” or Parasympathetic Nervous System — the system that takes over after eating and when we are in our restful, healing, relaxed state.

It makes sense that during a holiday like Thanksgiving, the combination of a large meal and a relaxed atmosphere would stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, putting us into ”rest and digest” mode. In this mode, blood saturates our GI tract, making sure we absorb and store as many nutrients as we can, but in doing so, it can also make us want to sleep our day away.

The most common symptoms of food coma

  • Sleepiness
  • Moodiness
  • Lethargy
  • Poor concentration
  • Feeling physically exhausted
  • Brain fog

  • Bloating
  • Distention
  • Indigestion
  • Gas/ flatulence/ belching
  • Headache

What about tryptophan?

We’ve all heard that turkey can make us tired due to its levels of tryptophan. Tryptophan is the amino acid precursor to brain chemicals like serotonin (which balances mood, appetite, and relaxation), as well as melatonin (the sleep hormone). It makes sense why some would think high tryptophan would result in a food coma. However, this theory has been debunked because the levels of tryptophan in turkey just aren’t high enough to raise brain serotonin levels to the point of sleepiness.

The real culprits: your side dishes

Meals high in carbohydrates/sugars, proteins, and fats have been linked to food comas.

Eating high amounts of carbohydrate-rich foods (think about stuffing mashed potatoes, casseroles, and pies), cause severe blood sugar swings. This rise and subsequent fall in your blood sugar often lead to fatigue and moodiness.

In addition to blood sugar imbalance, high-carb, high-fat meals cause the release of small proteins called cytokines, which are highly linked to fatigue, inflammation, GI distress, and even depression.

Last but certainly not least, meals high in protein and fat raise our level of peptide YY and the hormone cholecystokinin, both of which have been shown to cause sleepiness.

It’s clear to see that large meals containing high levels of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins stimulate the release of many biochemical substances, all of which have the ability to induce the Thanksgiving food coma.

How to prevent this year’s food coma

You aren’t destined to sleep your holiday away or feel uncomfortable the rest of the day managing digestive pain. Now that we understand what a food coma is and what causes it, let’s explore how we can prevent it.

1. Smaller portions, pace yourself

Thanksgiving is a marathon, not a sprint! Instead of fasting or “saving up” your calories for the Thanksgiving feast, try pacing yourself with small portions throughout the day. Large meal size is one of the main causes of a food coma. Eating small portions throughout the day will keep you feeling better than one large meal.

2. Mindful eating

When reaching for that next helping, ask yourself, “On a scale of 1-10, how hungry am I really?”. Chances are, you may not be as hungry as you think. Focus on the foods you are eating by savoring the taste, aroma, and texture. You can eat the leftovers tomorrow!

3. Chew your food

This one seems like a no-brainer. However, we can often be so distracted or excited to dive in that we inhale our food without thoroughly chewing. Not properly chewing your food leads to a lot of GI distress. By chewing each bite 30 times and putting down your fork between bites, you make it easier for your body to break down and absorb the food, preventing gas, bloating, and indigestion after meals.

4. Manage alcohol consumption

Alcohol is a known nervous system depressant, often leading to fatigue on its own. Pair large meals with high alcohol intake, and you might miss your Thanksgiving holiday altogether! Pace yourself by having one drink per hour with food, and you can avoid sleeping your day away.

5. Stay hydrated

Focusing too much on food and not enough on fluids can result in dehydration. Dehydration may impair mental function and add to fatigue. Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout your day, especially when consuming alcohol and caffeine as these can have a diuretic effect, adding to dehydration and fluid loss. We can also mistake thirst for hunger cues, so if you’re feeling hungry soon after you eat, you might just need a glass of good old H2O.

6. After dinner walk

Light physical movement after large meals has been shown to aid digestion, helping food move through the GI tract more efficiently. Post-meal walks were also shown to redistribute blood flow to the rest of the body, balance blood sugar, improve cardiovascular health, and help manage a healthy weight. Walking 15-30 minutes right after your meal (not waiting hours, lacing up as soon as you’re done) can prevent a food coma and help your digestion.

Feeling sleepy after a big meal is normal and can happen for a multitude of reasons. Although food comas are considered normal, if you’re concerned with the physical pain, GI distress, moodiness, and severe fatigue that can come with a food coma, there are simple measures you can take to prevent them.

By following the tips in this article, you can feel great, avoid a food coma, and make sure you stay awake long enough to enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday!

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Tina Tina
prefix 19 days ago
Awesome article! I really like the way this Dr. explains things in such an easy to understand, but valuable format. I look forward to more articles written by her.