How To Curb Your Christmas Lunch Food Coma (If You Want To)

A scientist spills on why we feel sleepy after chowing down, and if food comas are actually bad for us.

Christmas is the most wonderful time of year, primarily becuase you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want and it's perfectly acceptable behaviour.

A sandwich stuffed with leftover Chrissy ham and some pickles on Boxing Day? Go right ahead sir/madam.

Pavlova in your pajamas during those weird 'in-between' days after Xmas day but before New Year? Be our guest.

Sure, sometimes we get a bit carried away and eat ourselves into what is commonly called a food coma. That blissful state of sleepiness that follows a good festive stuffing.

But are food comas a way for our brains -- and stomachs -- to cry out for mercy? Can a food coma send us into a real coma? We asked molecular nutritionist Dr Emma Beckett to weigh in.

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What actually is a food coma?

"Thankfully it’s not an actual coma!" Dr Beckett told 10 daily.

"A 'food coma' is what people call the lethargy, drowsiness, or tiredness that can happen after eating a big meal."

It's a totally legit biological phenomenon and has a proper scientific name to boot -- Postprandial Somnolence.

Let's break that science-y speak down a bit. 'Post' means 'after', and 'prandial' means 'meal.' Put them together and you get a word that describes the period after you eat.

'Somnolence' is just a fancy way of saying 'sleepiness.'

So, 'Postprandial Somnolence' = feeling sleepy after you've chowed down.

That gut feeling

On a biological level, there’s no one cause behind food comas. In fact, as Dr Beckett explained, there are lots of reasons why scientists think they happen.

"It’s probably a combination of those reasons, involving nerves, hormones, and blood flow," she said.

Let's start at the top. The process of eating itself releases gut hormones, and some of those can directly make us sleepy.

On top of that our gastrointestinal tract -- which starts at our mouth and ends at our *ahem* bottom -- uses extra blood to digest our food, and it does it in a sneaky way.

It effectively 'steals' blood by diverting it from other places around the body -- like our muscles -- which leaves us feeling a little worn out.

Tucking into a meal also triggers the release of the hormone insulin, which helps glucose -- aka sugar -- get into your muscles and other cells to be used for energy.

That's all well and good, but eating can also flood your brain with tryptophan -- an amino acid used to make neurotransmitters -- and these neurotransmitters can may you sleepy.

There are also lots of nerves around the gut, and filling it up with food changes how the nerves signal -- when you're full as a bull those nerves are activated to say 'relaaaaaaaax.'

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Food coma culprits

There are some foods that'll put you into a food coma more than others, Dr Beckett explained.

"It has been suggested that high carb meals or high GI (glycemic index) foods are the biggest culprits, because of the insulin spike they cause."

High carbohydrate/GI culprits are foods like potatoes, bread, cakes and sweets, which pretty much describes a typical Christmas Day lunch menu ...

No wonder we all need a nap afterwards!

You could opt for more protein and less carbs to curb the coma, but what's a Chrissy lunch without the ham and ALL the trimmings?

Crunch time -- are food comas bad?

Humans have likely been quietly dozing off after a big meal since cavemen times, as our ancient brothers and sisters didn’t always have ready access to food. When tucker was on the table they went to town, and their binge sesh probably sent them all into a food coma.

Today, scientists still don't know if there's a group of people who are immune to the experience, but they can agree on one thing -- food comas aren't a bad thing. Kinda.

READ MORE: How To Do An Entire Christmas Lunch For Less Than A Pair Of Shoes

"This is a tricky one," Dr Beckett told 10 daily.

"The food coma itself isn’t hurting you, and having big meals occasionally isn’t going to hurt you if you are following a health balanced diet most of the time."

But the food coma is often a sign that we have over-indulged, and many of us are eating too much, which over time adds up to increase risk for obesity and weight-related illness.

So, slipping into a state of Postprandial Somnolence every now and then -- at Xmas for example -- isn't that big of a deal.

Hooray! Pass the baked potatoes, thanks.

I want to break free

If you don't want to let the post-Chrissy lunch sleepiness takeover -- perhaps you have another delicious meal to go to -- there are a few things you can do to break free of a food coma's clutches.

Of course, according to Dr Beckett, "prevention is the best treatment!" buuuuuut where's the fun in that?

If you feel yourself slipping under, going for a walk or doing other exercise may actually help.

"It will stimulate hormones that make you feel awake, and help promote blood sugar control," she said.

"It will also distract you from actually falling asleep!" And from going back for more Pavlova, as well.

Feature image: Getty.