If you find yourself dragging at 3 p.m., your head bobbing while you struggle to keep your eyes open, you're in good company. It's not uncommon for people to power through the morning and crash after lunch. It even has a name: the midday slump.
"Our body's natural circadian rhythm, the 24-hour internal clock that helps regulate our biological processes, sends signals to the brain during the day to keep us alert, awake and sharp," explains Anthony Reffi, Ph.D., a behavioral sleep specialist at Henry Ford Health. "Around lunchtime, there's a dip in these signals that can make us feel sleepy."
The Mechanics Behind The Midday Slump
According to the Sleep Foundation, it's normal for people to experience a dip in energy after lunch as part of the body's natural circadian rhythm. When you couple your body's natural biology with a heavy meal, it’s no surprise you feel sluggish. Some cultures even take advantage of the natural dip in energy with a midday siesta (or nap) to restore energy.
But why is there a dip in the first place? It has to do with sleep debt. "When we wake up in the morning, our body starts accumulating sleep debt," Dr. Reffi says. "The longer we go without sleep, the stronger our drive for sleep becomes. And by the time we hit mid-afternoon, we've already gone several hours without sleep."
The more sleep-deprived you are, the greater the effect of the post-lunch dip. Unfortunately, this natural "midday slump" is not only biologically driven, it's also terrible for your motivation and productivity.
Re-Energizing Your Afternoon
Since our circadian rhythm is set by our body's biology, we can't obliterate it entirely. But there are things you can do to minimize its impact and break out of the fog when it happens.
- Steer clear of caffeine. It's tempting to reach for another cup of joe when your energy starts lagging. And while that strategy might work at first, caffeine (like any drug) has diminishing returns. "If we're coping with the post-lunch dip by drinking caffeine, our body is going to require more caffeine over time to get the same effect," Dr. Reffi says. "And that's going to negatively affect our ability to sleep at night." Your best bet: restrict caffeine to morning use only and rely on caffeine substitutes to power through your afternoon.
- Step into the sunshine. Natural sunlight is the ideal antidote to the afternoon slog. Sunlight exposure can help inhibit your body's production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Can't get into the sun? Turn on some bright overhead lights and avoid darkness, particularly after lunch.
- Take a walk. While any exercise will put a spring in your step, if you can get outside for exercise, you'll get a greater return on your investment. "If you go for a walk outside, you're not only getting exercise, which wakes up body and mind, but you're also exposing yourself to fresh air and natural light," Dr. Reffi says.
- Get sufficient sleep. A good night's sleep lowers the odds that you'll experience a post-lunch crash. "The amount of sleep you need is highly individual, and it changes throughout your lifespan," explains Dr. Reffi. Your best bet: Aim to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, or at least enough to feel energized during the day.
- Drink more water. Even mild dehydration can lead to fatigue and affect our ability to concentrate. "Unfortunately, a lot of people are chronically dehydrated simply because they don't drink enough water to fuel their daily activities," Dr. Reffi says. If you're feeling sluggish, skip the caffeine and reach for a tall glass of water instead.
- Eat a healthy snack. While you might be tempted to reach for a sugar-laden candy bar for a quick hit of energy, that can lead to a crash and make you feel worse than you did before. A better option: Plan healthy snacks that pair whole fruits and raw vegetables with a protein source like nuts, seeds and low-fat dairy. Some good options are peanut butter and fruit; bell pepper slices, carrots, celery with hummus; a hard-boiled egg and an apple; or low-fat yogurt with berries are all good examples.
- Meditate. Meditation can help clear your mind and allow you to refocus. Even just taking a few deep breaths can boost your energy levels and help clear out brain fog. It can also help reduce stress and anxiety, which further depletes energy.
- Turn on some tunes. Music can have a powerful effect on your mood and energy level. Make a playlist of peppy songs to play while you're eating lunch. Need renewed focus? Try instrumental music.
- Take a nap. There's solid science to suggest that a 15- to 20-minute nap can help restore energy and focus. But if you sleep more than an hour, you may find that a nap leaves you feeling groggy and unable to sleep at night. Dr. Reffi recommends setting an alarm so you don't oversleep.
- Power down your device. Gazing at your phone or tablet, even during the day, can sap your energy. Make sure to power down all devices at least an hour before bedtime. You might also consider taking advantage of the "do not disturb" setting at different intervals during the day to preserve your mental energy.
When Your Midday Slump Means Something More
In some cases, a regular midday slump may be a sign that you need more sleep. According to Dr. Reffi, it's important to distinguish between sleepiness and fatigue:
- Fatigue: "When we talk about fatigue or tiredness, we're really talking about low energy," Dr. Reffi says, "and that can be driven by a number of different factors from an intense workout to low iron status or even depression." When you're low on energy, it can be difficult to fall asleep.
- Sleepiness: Sleepiness is the tendency to fall asleep at any given opportunity. Maybe you nod off during your 3 p.m. meeting, or you feel like you could fall asleep during your commute home. "That's a sign that you're sleep-deprived and need to get more sleep at night," Dr. Reffi says. It may even be a sign that you're suffering from a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy or insomnia.
Whether you're regularly slogging through your afternoons, or you feel like you're sleep-deprived and having trouble sleeping at night, it makes sense to get checked out. Treatments are available for sleep disorders and lifestyle changes can help you power through your afternoons.
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To find a doctor or sleep specialist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.
Dr. Anthony Reffi is a behavioral sleep specialist who works with patients enrolled Henry Ford Sleep Research Center clinical trials.