How Your Favorite Holiday Foods Affect Sleep

 

We’ve all experienced that post-holiday meal food crash. After eating a plate full of goodies, you push away from a table, ease over to the couch, and can’t resist closing your eyes for only a minute — and then an hour slips by. Just what is it about scrumptious holiday foods that prompt sleepiness? 

Commonly known as an after-dinner dip, a food coma, or the post-meal slump, there’s actually a proper medical term for why we feel sleepy after eating: Postprandial somnolence. According to Merriam-Webster, prandial means “of relating to a meal.” and somnolence is defined as “the state of being drowsy.” This condition happens for many reasons, especially when we’re enjoying the holiday season with all our favorite dishes.  

Why Do We Get Sleepy After Big Holiday Meals?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are five primary contributing factors for immediately wanting to take a nap after eating. 

Tryptophan 

This amino acid is probably familiar to you already, as you’ve probably heard about it in reference to protein-rich foods that promote great sleep. However, since you don’t always want to conk out immediately after eating a turkey sandwich or a handful of walnuts, tryptophan isn’t the only dietary culprit.

“While [tryptophan] has long been deemed the culprit of a post-meal snooze; it is more so a compound effect of our intake and selections rather than any one food triggering the couch to call us,” explains Courtney Southwood, MS, RDN, LDN, a practicing registered dietitian with more than a decade of experience.

The Digestive Cycle 

The average person needs 30–40 hours to digest each meal, but we certainly don’t wait that period of time to eat again, especially during the holiday season. So when festivities begin with Mom’s special potato egg casserole and french toast, followed with a few handfuls of seasoned crunch mix and cheesy bites during the football game, and ramp up to an overflowing plate at the main meal event, bam! Your body shifts into major digestive mode, reducing power to all other operating systems, including wakefulness. 

Hormones and Blood Sugar

Tryptophan produces serotonin, a neurotransmitter and hormone that helps balance sleep/wake cycles and moods. Blood sugar also rises each time we eat to convert that fuel into energy — and allows for more absorption of tryptophan. Certain holiday foods increase serotonin and blood sugar, so if you’re not able to take a nice walk or play an energetic game outside to tap into all that new energy, fatigue sets in.   

Alcohol

It’s common for many people to have a few extra glasses of cheer during the holidays. Harvard Health reports that the sedative effects of alcohol contribute to feeling drowsy. And if you also feel overly full, you’re much more likely to take a cat nap. Alcohol use might also contribute to a sleep disorder known as microsleep, which is when you unintentionally nod off without warning.

Overeating

Who among us hasn’t made a joke about wearing stretchy pants throughout the holidays? And with all the tasty treats around, we graze for days. Some experts state that during this time, we’re ignoring actual hunger signals — or “tummy hungry” — and instead choosing to eat because our minds want something — known as “yummy hungry.” As mentioned above, giving in to that is when the digestive system sets phasers to stun.

Southwood says that watching our portions for certain dishes can help us keep from slipping into the dreaded food coma. “It all circles back to the quantity and quality of carbohydrates we are consuming — many traditional holiday dishes are loaded with sugar,” she explains. “They may not look like the obvious suspects, but many dishes are candy bars in disguise (sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, cornbread, etc.). By managing portions of carb heavy dishes, it can minimize the roller coaster effect from the above.”  

Another common reason why we’re often tired after large holiday meals is that we might be sleep-deprived already. Travel, prepping for the occasion, entertaining guests, and other responsibilities could create a sleep debt, so wanting to rest after a big meal might be a signal that your mind and body need a break.

How Different Holiday Foods Affect Your Sleep

There are delectable combinations of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and sugar that might cause sleepiness after eating. Let’s take a closer look at what could be on your celebratory table and determine the strategy for enjoying them without lumbering into slumber later on.

Protein Party Favorites

Holiday festivities around the world include bountiful feasts to give thanks, honor traditions, and bring family and friends together. Usually at the center is some type of dish featuring animal or fish protein, soy, cheese, eggs, or nuts, including:  

  • Turkey
  • Ham
  • Chicken
  • Turducken 
  • Brisket
  • Century egg and pork congee
  • Salmon
  • Roast lamb
  • Seafood paella
  • Bulgogi 
  • Pork dumplings
  • Tamales
  • Roast goose
  • Feast of the Seven Fishes  

After a helping of these, tryptophan triggers more serotonin production. However, we can’t pin all the blame on this process, remember? Often, these proteins are combined with simple carbohydrate ingredients, which release insulin and raise blood sugar. Fatigue is a common symptom of high blood sugar, so it’s not a leap that loading up on certain holiday foods can leave you feeling sleepy.

Comforting Carbs

green bean casserole

Yes, not only is it all too common to pile a mountain of these tasty foods on our plate, but also to go back for seconds! How many of your top picks are on this list during the fall and winter holidays?

  • Mashed potatoes
  • Sweet potato casserole and pie
  • Latkes
  • Stuffing
  • Parsnips
  • Kugel 
  • Corn bread
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Acorn squash
  • Fried plantains
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Jollof rice
  • Various types of breads and rolls
  • Creamed spinach
  • Stewed okra and tomatoes
  • Scalloped potatoes
  • Green bean casserole
  • Fried wild rice
  • Samosa
  • Processed snack foods
  • Collard greens

While often considered healthy carbohydrates (such as leafy greens) any other time of the year, holiday side dishes like these are often enhanced with refined grains and extra sugar and fat for that holiday meal. This causes an even higher insulin and blood sugar spike than usual, which can lead to sleepiness.

The Dessert Buffet

holiday desserts

Sugar was once quite rare, so sweet treats elevated celebrations into truly special events. Any number of these might look familiar on your holiday dessert table.

  • Pumpkin pie
  • Apple pie
  • Cranberries
  • Panettone
  • Mincemeat pie
  • Gulab Jamun
  • Plum pudding
  • Melomakarona
  • Gingerbread
  • Pavlova
  • Puto Bumbong
  • Bûche de Noël (Yule log cake)
  • Nougat
  • Various types of cookies
  • Fruitcake
  • Stollen
  • Chimney cake
  • Rice Kheer

Crafted with simple sugars, you know the reason for sleepiness with these holiday foods: the dreaded sugar crash

“A sugar crash is the aftermath of eating/drinking too much sugar, which triggers our blood sugar to spike, which leads to an over-exaggerated insulin response (“the crash”),” explains Southwood. “Think of it like a roller coaster. When we eat carbohydrates, especially sugar and refined carbs (think white flours/grains here) we climb the hill only to go speeding back down that hill, leaving us hungry, craving more carbs, and sluggish. We eat more carbs and back on the roller coaster we go…all day long.” 

Tips To Help Curb Sleepiness After Holiday Meals

Health experts offer the following tips for avoiding the post-dinner slump:

  • Though many of us might like to show up to the holidays with empty stomachs, Southwood cautions against this approach if you want to avoid overeating. “Don’t go to the party hungry,” she says. “Have normal meals earlier in the day consisting of protein, produce and fat. Think veggie omelet, Greek yogurt and berries, tuna salad and celery.”
  • Drink more water. This keeps you hydrated and eases digestion.
  • As Southwood says, mailman it. “Wait 15 minutes before going for seconds. It takes about 15 minutes for your stomach to deliver the message to your brain that you’re satisfied, and we often overeat in this window. So if you’ve ever felt sleepy or stuffed shortly after a meal, you didn’t let the mailman deliver the message.”
  • Eat more complex carbohydrates. Mix in beans, peas, lentils, nuts, whole grains, and seeds into more dishes.
  • Move more. Even a 15-minute walk after the holiday meal, especially in fresh air, will help keep you alert.

The Last Word From Sleepopolis 

The holidays should be enjoyed to the fullest — but you don’t have to feel that way. By staying true to your usual sleep hygiene routine, savoring small portions of your favorite dishes, and exercising a bit after every meal, you shouldn’t have any trouble avoiding a food coma. 

 

Tracey L. Kelley

When not traveling, teaching yoga, or doing voiceover projects, Tracey is an editorial strategist and content developer for print, digital, and multimedia platforms. Based in the Midwest, she writes on various topics, from addiction science and sleep hygiene to better bonding with pets and interesting nonprofit and advocacy efforts. She also makes a rather snazzy blueberry pie.

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