How to avoid the dreaded Thanksgiving Day ‘food coma’

By Melissa Sammy, for MDLinx
Published November 22, 2019

Key Takeaways

Thanksgiving Day is a national, time-honored tradition often characterized by the four “Fs”—family, friends, food, and football. But for some people (read: most), there’s a fifth “F”—the dreaded “food coma”—which health experts say is no myth.

“This food coma phenomenon that people may experience after Thanksgiving dinner is real,” notes Sigrid C. Veasey, MD, professor, Department of Medicine, and member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. “What you’re eating is actually inducing inflammatory proteins known as cytokines and other substances produced in the body in response to this mega meal that can make you tired.”

Food coma, or postprandial somnolence, is a state of extreme fatigue, lethargy, or sleepiness that occurs following the consumption of a large meal. It may be accompanied by abdominal discomfort, including bloating, and can last for several hours. According to some estimates, the average American will consume anywhere from 2,500 to 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving, so it should come as no surprise that many of us may experience some degree of pain after such a culinary pleasure.

And while many may be quick to point to turkey—specifically, its naturally occurring amino acid tryptophan—as the obvious culprit behind food coma, experts have shown that this simply isn’t the case.

“Studies show tryptophan does increase natural, deep sleep,” said Dr. Veasey. “However, you would have to eat far more tryptophan than anyone could consume in one meal to get that sleep-inducing effect.”

Kim Sasso, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian and bariatric specialist at Loyola University Health System Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care, in Melrose Park, IL, echoed this sentiment, stating: “Turkey doesn’t make you sleepy—eating very large quantities of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and pie makes you sleepy.”

Eating these particular foods can induce drowsiness because large amounts of simple carbs and fats increase insulin levels and affect the amount of two hormones—leptin (regulates fat) and ghrelin (regulates energy and hunger)—released by the body, thus disrupting sleep patterns.

Mindset and mindfulness are important for maintaining a healthy relationship with food year-round, especially during the holidays. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to skimp on, or sacrifice, your favorite Thanksgiving foods. Here are some tips to avoid falling into a food coma or digestive unrest on Turkey Day.

Before and during the big meal:

Don’t skip meals beforehand. Saving your appetite for the big meal will only increase the odds of you eating more quickly— paving the way for an upset stomach-- and more than usual in your hunger. Instead, stick to your regular meal schedule to avoid overeating. That way, you can arrive to the special meal ready to enjoy your favorite foods, but in a more balanced state of mind.

Tweak recipes for healthier options. If you’re in charge of the Thanksgiving dinner, make a few small tweak to certain dishes for less fat and sugar contents. Instead of using butter in mashed potatoes, for example, consider using healthier alternatives like olive oil or Greek yogurt. The end result will still be flavorful and satisfying, but won’t be as heavy or unhealthy as the original.

Choose your seat wisely. According to some research on people’s behavior in buffet lines, people tend to overload their plates with whatever food is directly in front of them, and then gradually fill their plate with the remaining food items. So, it may be a good idea to take a seat closer to the vegetables than the mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.

Hydrate with water, not soda. Carbonated drinks—even diet soda—can fill your stomach with air, making you feel gassy and bloated. On the other hand, drinking water can help curb hunger cravings, help you pace yourself before digging into your meal, and will help keep things moving along in your digestive system after eating.

Drink from tall, skinny glasses. People tend to pour more liquid into shorter, wider glasses than taller, skinnier one—at least according to the results of one study published in the BMJ. While that’s great news if you’re drinking water, you’ll consume fewer carbs, calories, and sugar by pouring alcohol and other sugary drinks into a narrower glass.

Watch your alcohol intake. On a related note, keep an eye out on how many drinks you’re throwing back. “Alcohol makes you sleepy and you fall asleep sooner, but it is terrible for sleep in the sense that you don’t get into the deeper stages, and you don’t get into rapid eye movement and end up missing some of the best part of sleep,” notes Dr. Veasey. “That’s why a lot of people feel sleepy the next day.”

Eat in smaller plates. Along the same lines, researchers have shown that people tend to consume more or less food in correlation with plate size. In one study, for instance, consumers with large plates ate 45% more food than those with smaller plates. Nutritional experts speculate that this is because people base their portion size relative to their plates—so the bigger the dinnerware, the bigger the portion.

Balance your plate. By focusing on filling half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with carbs, and a quarter with protein, you aren’t depriving yourself of any food group, and are also ensuring that you won’t eat a meal that’s too heavy. Of note, try staying away from cruciferous vegetables, which can make you feel bloated.

Slow down. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain and stomach to register feelings of fullness once you start eating. So, if you eat too quickly, your stomach will fill up before your brain can “tell” you to stop, causing you to feel uncomfortable and bloated. Instead, savor each bite. Putting your utensils down between bites can help you to pace yourself.

Keep the salt shaker away. Consuming excess sodium will not only make you feel bloated due to the fluid retention it causes in the body, but researchers have suggested that eating protein and salt in a big meal may induce postprandial sleep.

After the meal:

Get your body moving. After dinner, you may be tempted to turn into a couch potato. Don’t. Even engaging in a short walk after eating can lower your blood sugar levels and help with digestion. Researchers have shown that an after-dinner stroll can help remove glucose from the bloodstream. If you’re not up for a walk, offer to clear the plates off the table, do the dishes, or take the trash out instead. Any bit of physical activity will help. It’ll get your endorphins pumping, your blood flowing, and boost your energy levels.

Sip on some tea. If you’re still feeling hungry after dinner or are dealing with an upset stomach, drinking peppermint tea may help. Peppermint has been shown to relieve painful bloating and cramps and support digestion.

Or indulge in a bittersweet amaro. Amaro is a popular Italian liqueur made from macerated herbs, roots, bark, flowers, and sometimes citrus peels soaked in alcohol, neutral spirits, or wine. It has a bitter-sweet flavor that can be syrupy, which is a good thing because anything with a bitter flavor is a natural digestive aid. This is because the bitterness naturally spurs the production of gastric juices and saliva, minimizing appetite and aiding in digestion.

So, go ahead and indulge in the turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy this Thanksgiving. Just try to remember these helpful tips to keep you from the infamous after-dinner torpor. And Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours from the editors at MDLinx!

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