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What is the afternoon slump? Why does it happen? Here's how to fight it

by Mark Miller January 19, 2017

What is the afternoon slump? Why does it happen? Here's how to fight it

Popular websites say it’s best to avoid caffeine and sugar to fight the afternoon slump. But one site recommends dark chocolate like these Swiss varieties, which have some natural caffeine. ( Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Simon A. Eugster) The afternoon slump would be OK if you could just lie down for a little nap. But most of us have to earn a living, and management would likely frown on anyone who went home from 2 to 4 p.m. for a siesta.

If a nap is out of the question, how can a worker cope with an urge to sleep after lunch? First, let’s explore the reasons why some people become drowsy after lunch.

Why an afternoon slump?

The World Wide Web has many articles about the afternoon slump; a Google search turns up 897,000 links on the topic. Sleep.org, a National Sleep Foundation site, includes an article titled Four Reasons You Get Tired at 2 p.m. on its website that tells why the afternoon slump occurs and what to do about it.

The first reason on the list is that people eat too many simple carbohydrates like white bread, white rice, pasta made from white flour, and chips. Exchange simple carbs for complex carbs like whole-grain breads, crackers, pasta and brown rice. Eating simple carbs can cause the body to produce a big spike in blood sugar. The elevated sugar in the blood can give energy at first, but it is quickly metabolized and the body crashes.

Another reason people experience the afternoon slump is because they’re just sitting at their desk or work station for several hours. The human body reacts to stillness with an urge to sleep. Sleep.org recommends stretching or walking around a while every hour or so at least.

Even minor dehydration can cause a person to be moody or to feel like sleeping. A loss of just 1.5 percent of the body’s water can bring on drowsiness. Sleep.org recommends keeping a glass of water at your desk and sipping some throughout the day.

Also, our core body temperatures drop between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. daily in a natural cycle called the circadian rhythm. The body reacts to the lowered body temperature with a release of melatonin, a sleep hormone. Sleep.org recommends listening to upbeat music, going for a brief invigorating walk or going outside to be in the sunshine for a little while.

Afternoon urge is natural

The urge to sleep in the afternoon is natural, according to WebMD. The site quotes Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who says: “There seems to be something natural about this lull. Some cultures have the siesta, and people find that they’re more productive and better able to concentrate if they take time off after lunch and come back later.”

She adds that there are two processes at work in the mid-afternoon sleep slump. She said the body’s natural rhythms plus eating habits can combine in a “double whammy leading to a massive energy crash.” She said people need to eat right and get a good breakfast to start the day off.

A cup of coffee in the morning plus a candy bar or a bag of chips at lunch give short-term energy, Professor Sandon says, but they won’t be enough even at the start of the day for optimal function of the brain and body.

Like Sleep.org, she too recommends carbs for a proper start to the day, but she adds that protein is necessary too.

“You feel better, mentally and physically, when you’ve had a meal that combines carbs and protein,” Professor Sandon told WebMD.

She recommends men get 500 calories at breakfast and women 300 to 400. She gave some examples of meals to start the day: cereal with milk and some fruit, or two slices of whole-grain toast with peanut butter and a banana.

She said it’s a big mistake to skip lunch or just have a salad. It is necessary to have some protein at lunch too. Go easy on the fat at lunchtime, too.

She advises drinking enough water and getting up and moving around if you feel drowsy after lunch. But she adds that you should also have a light snack if you feel sleepy, again with carbs and proteins.

18 tips on fighting sleep slump

Reader’s Digest suggests 18 tips to fight the afternoon blahs, taking the tips from the book Stealth Health. The first recommendation advises eating lunch outdoors and splitting the time between actually eating and going for a walk.

This article too recommends protein over what it calls “energy-sapping carbs.”

Get up from your desk to do some filing or cleaning your desk around the time the slump hits. Also, another little-known trick about any job is to get the most difficult tasks done first and then save the ones you enjoy or the easier ones for later in the day. You’re more likely to want to stay awake if you are doing something you enjoy.

“Consider a morsel of dark chocolate.” You read that right. The Reader’s Digest article actually has that headline, and here I will quote directly from the article:

This is not a license to overindulge, but dark chocolate does have some unique advantages. Unlike milk chocolate, it is truly a healthy food, closer to the category of nuts than sweets, given the high levels of healthy fat and antioxidants it contains. Plus, it has abundant fiber and magnesium. Additionally, it provides a little caffeine, as well as a satisfyingly decadent feeling. But don’t eat more than one square.

Caffeine or not?

Which brings us to caffeine. Reader’s Digest recommends a cup of caffeinated tea. But what about a stronger jolt of the world’s most popular consciousness-altering drug (caffeine)? Why not a strong cup of coffee or a couple of caffeinated Viter Energy Mints when the Sandman sprinkles sleep dust on your workday?

It seems like most articles on Google about how to beat the afternoon slump involve doing so without caffeine. Site after site have articles that say something like “Beat the afternoon slump without coffee or sugar.”

Much research has been done on coffee and caffeine and how they stimulate alertness and feelings of well-being. As long as you take caffeine in moderate amounts, it is safe and even beneficial. Also, many articles say taking caffeine too late in the day can interfere with sleepiness at bedtime. As long as you don’t have too much caffeine in a day and don’t take it too late, there is no reason not to have a cup of joe in the early afternoon. You might overcome the afternoon doldrums while enjoying the world’s favorite mood-altering substance.

See our blog How Much Caffeine is Safe for Adults?

Mark Miller
Mark Miller

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