There are few things you can count on happening every Thanksgiving: Someone will forget to defrost the turkey; you’ll have to endure uncomfortable conversations about politics, and possibly invasive questions about the state of your love life; and then there’s the inevitable post-dinner food coma.
Why, after eating a comforting, home-cooked meal, do we find ourselves in a spiral of drowsiness and lethargy, and how are we supposed to recover from it?
When we eat a meal, big or small, the stomach produces gastrin, a hormone that stimulates the secretion of digestive juices. As food moves through the stomach and into the small intestine, blood is diverted to the stomach and gut in order to move away the recently digested metabolites. This leaves less blood for other bodily functions, which can cause people to feel light-headed or tired after a large meal. But shoveling down a huge plate of all your Thanksgiving favorites also causes the body to produce cholecystokinin, a hormone that — along with signaling the brain that the stomach is full — can makes us drowsy by increasing the production of two sleep-regulating neurotransmitters, serotonin and melatonin.
But it’s not just the quantity of food ingested that puts us into a post-meal slumber — it’s also the types of food. Simple carbohydrates such as mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and stuffing are more likely to have us feeling tired because they spike our blood sugar, leading to the release of the blood-sugar regulating hormone, insulin. But insulin also allows tryptophan (the amino acid found in turkey that is most often cited as the source of the Thanksgiving food coma) to cross the blood-brain barrier. Tryptophan alone won’t put you to sleep, but the whole day is a just a nap waiting to happen.
Now that you know what’s putting you to sleep after Thanksgiving dinner, here's how to recover from your food coma, both right after the meal and the following day.