It is no secret we all get that urge to sleep soon after eating a sumptuous daytime meal. Also called post-meal dip and postprandial sleep, that urge to rest can also be forceful after supper.
Yes, lying down on our backs after a meal always feels like the right thing to do.
Question is, should we, or shouldn’t we take a nap after a meal? Or more specifically, does the habit interfere with our digestive health in any way? And what does the science world have to say about it?
As expected, health experts offer varying opinions. Some point out how a nap after a meal is perfectly fine. In any case, many cultures around the world, and the Mediterranean region in particular, have siestas, as part of their afternoon routine, to cool off and rebuild.
Others beg to disagree. They say lying in a supine position soon after eating is bad for your gut health and can trigger unprecedented digestive troubles.
In particular, post-meal dip sleep is bad for those with type II diabetes, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), IBS, and other stomach conditions.
For this reason, we are advised to keep our heads up for a while to allow healthier digestion after food reaches the stomach.
How long we should stay upright depends on the food type we have eaten, quantity, and our overall health. For most people, half an hour to one hour will do just fine. For others, upwards of two hours is recommended.
What causes that sleepiness after a meal?
Science does not clearly explain what makes the body crave post-meal sleep, but this has not stopped doctors from giving their thoughts.
One doctor in Japan links post meal dip to blood circulation. Apparently, the activities of the stomach and the intestines go a notch high soon after a meal. This surge means the digestive system needs additional blood to get the job done.
As a result, other body organs are obliged to surrender their blood bounty to meet the demands of the abdomen. When these organs, including the brain, run short of blood for a while, the feeling of drowsiness and the urge to sleep kick in.
Besides blood, a combination of factors mentioned below could also be the reasons you want to sleep soon after eating.
- Eating too much food!
- Poor sleep at night and after effects of sleep debt!
- Too much carbohydrates and protein in your diet will produce more serotonin, which triggers sleep.
- General lack of physical activity.
Reasons why you should not sleep after eating!
– Digestive hiccups
The digestive system, also called the gastrointestinal (GI) system, is a complex mechanism that facilitates the extraction of important nutrients from the food we eat, to fulfill the energy demands of the body.
When we ingest food through the mouth, it flows down the esophagus, stomach, small intestines, and the colon. For this movement to be smooth, the body is better off in a vertical rather than horizontal position.
And yes, standing and walking is so much better.
Walking is also good for the management of blood sugar levels, which usually spike soon after eating a meal laden with carbs and proteins!
In a study in 2016, a 10 minute walk
… after meals was associated with improvements in postprandial glycaemia when compared with advice to walk for 30 min/day in a single bout at an unspecified time.
Additional arguments explain how walking cuts down on instances of heartburn and acid reflux.
… the case against supine (lying position)
The supine position, especially on the right, back and stomach, can slow the peristalsis contraction, and trigger multiple gut problems.
With a BAD lying position, your body will spend more time digesting food and retain waste for longer hours, according to PubMed Central:
… the lying position significantly slowed gastric emptying compared to all other positions. Conversely, a decrease in emptying times of 51% and 35% occurred in the combined sitting-standing position compared to the lying and sitting position.
The normal time food stays in the stomach and the small intestines stretch from 6 to 8 hours, depending on factors such as sex, food type, quantity, and body position.
Once in the colon, food will take an average of 36 hours before excretion.
from the time you swallow food to the time it leaves your body as feces — takes about two to five days, depending on the individual.Mayo Clininc
Anything that slows this journey is bad for you and gut health.
– Acid and bile reflux
When you lie down soon after a meal, there is the likelihood that stomach acids and other digestive juices may just find their way into the esophagus. This condition is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD.
What happens is that the esophageal sphincter muscles at the end of the esophagus open up, and allow stomach acid to flow backwards.
Unlike the stomach, the lining of the esophagus is not designed to handle the irritation from these acids. Continued irritation will lead to stricture, and ulcer.
Besides the pain and feeling of heartburn in the chest, these complications are breeding grounds for esophageal cancer, according to Mayo Clinic.
The esophageal sphincter can open up due to pressure around the abdomen caused by,
- hiatal hernia
- eating spiced food
- eating fried food
- taking in too much food
- medications for asthma and allergies
Smoking, second-hand smoking and alcoholism can also lead to the malfunctioning of the sphincter.
Other than the typical acid reflux, bile reflux can present with more severe symptoms. Pain in the upper area of the stomach can be intense and extend to the throat. It can also lead to vomiting of greenish-yellowish fluid, coughing, and weight loss.
Free tips to bolster alertness after mealtimes
Now that your body is all loose and ready to drop, what options do you have to charge it up?
- You should actually get up and walk around. Besides keeping you awake, this facilitates faster digestion.
- Don’t eat too much. Cut down on the quantity of food by half, and see what happens.
- Eat a balanced diet of proteins, vegetables and carbs. More veggies are recommended.
- And hey, eat early, 2 – 3 hours before sleeping or napping.
- Don’t mix your meal with caffeine and alcohol.
- Get better sleep at night to avoid sleep debt and disturbance the next day.
What if you can’t help it!
Let’s face it, sometimes you simply cannot get around the urge to sleep after eating. If this is your predicament, you can go ahead and nap, but do it correctly.
If you are to lie down, or sleep after eating, do it correctly by sleeping on your left. Avoid sleeping on the right and other positions.
Second, only nap for a short while, say 10 – 15 minutes, and then get up.
Even better, rather than heading straight to the couch or bed, you can use the table in the office and take a nap when seated upright.