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Getting Over the Afternoon Slump

Getting Over the Afternoon Slump

How often do you feel like napping in the afternoon? Whether your afternoon slumps are chronic or occasional, it can be frustrating to feel your get-up-and-go energy get up and leave shortly after lunchtime, especially when you have a long list of things to do.

Think of how much more you could accomplish if only you could fight off the torpor and manage to refocus. You might find the motivation to finish projects by making the most of each minute. You'd probably also enjoy a better mood and frame of mind.

But powering through those slumps can be tough, especially when your eyes get heavy, your mind feels foggy, and your attention span shrinks to the size of a pea.

It's not impossible, however, to get back your gusto -- or keep it from bottoming out in the first place. To minimize the impact of these energy dips on your daily life and make the afternoon more productive and rewarding, review your routine, identify potential problems, and adjust your daily habits and dietary choices.

Step 1: Understand What's Behind Those Postlunch Dips

True or false?
Energy dips in the afternoon are mainly caused by what you ate for lunch.
True
False

The correct answer is: False.

Food Is Not Always to Blame

Researchers disagree about how much of the postlunch energy dip is attributable to the noontime meal. Little research supports the theory that eating certain foods makes you more tired in the afternoon than you normally would be if you ate other foods. In fact, research shows that the postlunch dip can occur even when people skip lunch altogether.

If diet is a factor, however, it’s likely that it merely magnifies an afternoon energy slump, rather than causes it. For example, the postlunch dip may be exacerbated when you don’t provide your body with a steady, balanced supply of carbohydrates, protein, and fats, or when you eat a large, heavy meal at lunchtime.

So what’s the real cause of the postlunch malaise?

True or false?
Poor sleep habits can cause afternoon slumps.
True
False

The correct answer is: True.

Consider Underlying Causes

Addressing your afternoon energy shortage requires figuring out whether poor sleep habits, a sleep disorder, or another health condition is to blame. Although uncommon, there are some serious medical conditions that may cause daytime fatigue and drowsiness.

If your afternoon energy dips are acute, chronic, and worrisome, consult your healthcare provider to rule out underlying causes. In addition to medical conditions, certain medications also could cause daytime fatigue.

So, if you are otherwise healthy, then what’s the most likely cause of your afternoon slump?

True or false?
Feeling sleepy in the afternoon is human nature.
True
False

The correct answer is: True.

Not everyone’s daytime sleepiness is the result of a sleep disorder or lunch habits. Sleep experts believe an afternoon lull in energy in otherwise healthy people may be hardwired.

Many processes in the human body are governed by circadian rhythms that create small ebbs and flows in the rates of numerous biological functions, such as body temperature, hormone levels, blood pressure, appetite, sleep and wake cycles, and alertness. These rhythmic swings occur within an approximately 24-hour cycle and regulate your body’s internal clock.

People naturally experience dips in energy levels because of circadian rhythms. Research reveals there is one major dip in energy and alertness when we need that dip most -- during the hours between midnight and dawn, when most people sleep. However, researchers also discovered a second dip when they kept a group of study participants ignorant of time and day for several weeks and allowed them to eat when they wanted. The study participants naturally experienced a second, smaller dip in their energy levels between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. This dip became known as the postlunch dip, the postprandial dip, or the secondary sleep gate. The extent of this energy dip varies a bit with each person, but typically people experience an abrupt drop in alertness and concentration at this time.

It’s not clear why our circadian rhythms have a large energy dip at night and a potential second dip in the afternoon. It’s possible that it is an evolutionary leftover from a time when afternoon naps were conducive to survival or daily life.

What is clear is that napping isn’t particularly conducive to modern society -- most people need and want to be productive and alert in the afternoons. Regardless of the degree to which these afternoon slumps affect you, you can learn to compensate for them and help ensure they don’t throw off your schedule or put you in harm’s way.

Circadian rhythms can be thrown off kilter by shift work, travel across time zones, and processes related to aging. 

Step 2: Make the Right Adjustments

A quick hit of energy from food such as candy bars or other high-calorie, low-nutrition treats won't do the trick when you're trying to beat an afternoon slump. The body responds differently to different types of food, and eating carbs with a high glycemic index, such as sugary drinks or snacks, can lead to energy highs and lows that may exacerbate the postlunch dip.

However, food can help maintain your energy throughout the day. Although researchers disagree about how much of the postlunch energy dip is attributable to the noontime meal, overall energy levels and mood can be affected by what you do or don't eat throughout the entire day.

To fuel your brain for every thought and action you perform throughout the day and avoid feeling tired, you need a balance of the three key macronutrients -- carbohydrates, protein, and fat -- in your diet. A balance of these macronutrients will help:

  • Keep blood glucose levels steady; blood glucose (sugar) regulation can enhance cognitive performance.
  • Prevent hypoglycemia, a low blood sugar condition that can develop when a person doesn't eat enough or when a person eats excessive refined sugar. While it lasts, hypoglycemia impairs memory, shortens attention span, and causes irritability.
  • Maintain the equilibrium of certain amino acid concentrations in the blood, which helps regulate the production of serotonin, a sleep-promoting hormone.

Because different people have different reactions to food, it's difficult to recommend the best macronutrient ratios for sustaining afternoon energy levels. Start with a basic ratio of about 55% of your calories from carbs, 30% from fat, and 15% from protein, and then fine-tune it to your own needs by trying slightly different combinations of each to see what feels best to you.

Here are some other options . . .

Add a Power Nap to Your Power Lunch

Research reveals that a brief nap during lunch may be one of the best ways to help you stay alert throughout the afternoon. A National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) study found that napping improved pilot performance by 34% and alertness by 54%. Also, a study in Japan revealed that a 20-minute nap dramatically decreased participants' sleepiness and improved their self-rating of task performance.

Daytime napping isn't a practical option for everyone, but if you can work it into your schedule, try closing your eyes and relaxing for at least 10 minutes in the early afternoon. If you find a siesta restores your energy and enthusiasm and helps you sustain your focus, make it part of your routine, taking your nap at about the same time each day. Keeping a consistent daily sleep schedule is important.

Be aware that napping for too long will push you into a deeper stage of sleep than you can easily wake from, which may leave you feeling groggy rather than refreshed and may even interfere with your nighttime sleep.

Kick It into Gear

Research suggests that exercising at lunch can be very helpful in sustaining afternoon concentration and energy levels. A recent study revealed that workers were less likely to suffer afternoon fatigue on days when they exercised during lunch. The type, duration, or intensity of exercise didn't seem to matter, which means even a mini midday stretch session may help you over the postlunch dip. Or try a short walk around the block. If you have the time, a quick run also could fit the bill. Exercise also will increase blood and oxygen flow, release tension, and produce endorphins, which can help you feel more energized.

A longer midday workout may be counterproductive if it makes you tired or causes too high an endorphin pileup. It may make you feel great but incapable of settling down to work, so stick to shorter sessions.

If you can't fit a midday workout in, sticking to a regular exercise routine at other times of day also may help keep you energized. Other studies have revealed that even brief bouts of mild exercise, when performed regularly, are effective at improving overall energy levels.

Coffee Can Be Helpful

You may think you're cheating when you reach for a cup of coffee or tea when you hit the postlunch dip, but numerous studies have revealed that caffeine can have beneficial effects on alertness and performance. Drinking a caffeinated beverage after lunch helped one group of study participants sustain attention and concentration during the postlunch dip.

Just keep in mind that excessive consumption of caffeine can lead to undesirable side effects, especially in people who are sensitive to the effects of caffeine. Excessive amounts of caffeine may cause increased heart rate, restlessness, nausea, or difficulty sleeping for some people. Use this pick-me-up trick in moderation.

Energy in a Pill?

Numerous supplements are available that claim to increase energy. Ginseng and ginkgo biloba are two supplements commonly marketed as energy and vitality boosters.

Although there is not sufficient clinical evidence to support claims of an energy boosting effect from ginseng, some studies suggest it may have value in normalizing glucose levels.

Manufacturers of ginkgo products claim the herb improves cognitive function and memory. However, a recent small study revealed that ginkgo biloba was ineffective at alleviating the symptoms of the postlunch dip.

Other products continue to enter the market amidst questionable research claims, so keep in mind that unless there is solid evidence from controlled clinical trials published in peer-reviewed journals to support the manufacturer's claims, it's buyer beware.

If you take supplements, tell your healthcare provider or pharmacist. He or she can determine if there are any contraindications for your supplements and any of the prescribed or over-the-counter medications you may be taking. Ginseng and ginkgo biloba both have effects that may be harmful for people with certain medical conditions.

Find Your Own Rhythm

Some decline in your energy level is expected as you age. In fact, lack of daytime energy is one of the most common health complaints among adults.

However, daytime fatigue appears to be affected by a number of variables other than age, and every individual is unique. Determining an effective remedy for your own afternoon slump may require some trial and error. By working with your internal clock and not skimping on the necessities of sleep, exercise, and balanced nutrition, you can get the most out of your days.

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