Though eating a giant portion of food – whether it’s in celebration or just because you’re in the middle of a Netflix-takeout binge – is one of the joys of life, there’s one definite downside that many of us have encountered: the dreaded food coma.
Despite the fact that the term ‘food coma’ is so popular that it was added to the Oxford dictionary back in 2014, there are some misconceptions about the science behind what actually causes it. But thankfully researchers have managed to set the record straight – and have some advice on how to avoid it.
The first thing we need to go over is what happens inside our bodies when we eat specific foods. According to David McCulloch, from Group Health Cooperative, when you take a bite of food, it’s broken down in your stomach and then your blood sugar level rises, triggering your pancreas to start producing insulin.
"Insulin travels through the blood to your body's cells. It tells the cells to open up and let the glucose in," McCulloch explains. "Once inside, the cells convert glucose into energy or store it to use later."
While this process is underway, the increased insulin levels in our bloodstreams allow a chemical called tryptophan - the same substance inside turkey that people often incorrectly cite as making them sleepy - to reach our brains, creating serotonin, reports Katherine Ellen Foley for Quartz. In addition to making us deliriously happy with the food we just consumed and tempted to eat more, both of these chemicals also tend to make us sleepy.
But if that’s the case, why don’t we get sleepy after every single meal?
Well, you probably do, but not enough to notice it. The food coma only kicks into gear when you eat a tonne of foods that are ranked high on the glycaemic index – mainly carbohydrates like bread and pasta – which just so happen to be the ones most popular during holiday feasts.
The problem is that these foods cause a spike in blood sugar levels that our pancreases cannot catch up with. This means that an insane amount of insulin is created, which in turn causes a bunch of serotonin and tryptophan, too.
"Our bodies are really good at breaking down simple carbohydrates - like white bread, bagels, or pasta - into sugars our cells use for energy," Foley explains in her report. "These foods have a high glycaemic index, which means that they quickly increase the amount of sugar in our blood. When we eat a lot of these foods, we get us a boost of energy but it takes our pancreas some time, around an hour or so, to catch up and produce insulin."
All of this means that most of us are thinking about food comas – or, 'post-prandial somnolence' if you want to sound like an expert – wrong. It turns out that the amount of food we eat really isn’t to blame all that much. Instead, it’s all about what foods you eat. If you eat a lot of bread with a heavy meal, you’ll likely enter a food coma. If it’s mainly low-carb foods – like meats and fish – you might not.
Obviously, it’s important to remember that everyone’s bodies are different and results vary from person to person.
But if you know that you’re the type of person to enter a food coma after a big meal, there are some pretty easy ways to get out of the funk. For example, exercising after the meal can help eliminate some of the blood sugar coursing through your body, allowing your pancreas to adjust and, therefore, skipping the drowsiness.
The easiest way to avoid a food coma, though, is to pick the right foods to feast on, ensuring you have a balanced diet between high and low glycaemic foods. Doing this should all but cure you of food comas forever.
And there you have it, food comas aren’t just about eating a lot of food. In fact, it really doesn’t matter all that much how much you eat because it’s the content of that food that can trigger a chemical chain reaction inside your body that produces serotonin and tryptophan, the active ingredients of any food coma.