Afternoon crash. Siesta time. After-lunch slump. The two o’clock droop. Whatever you call it, most of us have experienced it from time to time – it’s that point at which your energy level simply takes a nosedive in the middle of the afternoon.
You may feel more than just a crash in your energy level. That after-lunch slump can make you feel a little irritable, too. Maybe you’ve got a mild headache, or feel as if you’re not thinking very clearly. And, almost certainly, that energy crash is causing some serious sugar cravings, too.
What Causes the Afternoon Crash?
Your body’s natural internal clock is partly to blame for the afternoon energy dip. Everyone’s energy level ebbs and flows during a 24-hour period and, for most of us, the strongest drive to sleep comes on a few hours after midnight. But another dip – although not usually quite as powerful – also naturally occurs in the early-to-mid afternoon. By that time of day, most people have been up and alert for 6 or 8 hours or so, and the natural need for sleep is starting to build – and you feel the crash coming on.
Since these internal rhythms can get disrupted or accentuated if you don’t get enough sleep, establishing a healthy sleep schedule is really important in helping you maintain your energy all day long.
But what you eat – and when – also factors in.
The Right Carbs Help Keep You Energized All Day Long
If your energy regularly droops in the afternoon, it’s time to take a closer look at your eating habits. That afternoon energy crash could be due – in large part – because you’re simply not providing your body with the proper fuel at the proper times.
Let’s look first at the carbohydrates that you eat. The sugar in your bloodstream (called your blood glucose, or blood sugar) is what your body relies on to provide the energy you need to get you through your day. And, your blood sugar comes almost entirely from the carbohydrates that you eat in your diet. But different carbohydrates have different effects on your blood sugar.
When you eat sugary foods or highly refined carbohydrates – like soda or white bread – they’re digested relatively quickly, releasing a surge of glucose into your bloodstream. And while this energy surge might sound like a good thing, it generally doesn’t last very long. That’s because your body prefers it when sugar trickles more slowly and steadily into your system.
So, when you dump a load of sugar and refined carbs into your system and your blood sugar shoots up, your body sort of “over-corrects” – which sends your blood sugar plummeting. When your blood sugar drops, that’s when you might start craving unhealthy sugary snacks to bring blood levels back up.
Many people get an energy slump in the afternoon because they’re eating the wrong carbohydrates. They’ll start the day with something like a sugary cereal – which causes the blood sugar to shoot up and, almost as quickly, to crash back down again. That might trigger a sugar craving, which they’ll satisfy with a pastry or some candy, and the cycle repeats. Since they’re not providing their body with a slow, steady fuel source, their energy levels might feel like a roller coaster all day long.
On the other hand, when you get your carbohydrates from foods like vegetables, whole fruits and whole grains, they take longer to digest. Instead of a causing a big spike in your blood sugar, eating these foods allows glucose to more slowly enter the bloodstream and helps provide more sustained energy over a longer period of time.
How to Eat to Keep Energy Levels Up
In order to keep your energy levels up and avoid the afternoon energy slump, you need well-balanced meals and snacks, and you need to eat every few hours. People who skip meals just can’t keep going all day long. When you don’t eat at regular intervals, your blood sugar is going to drop – taking your energy level along with it.
Just as not eating enough can zap your energy, eating too much at lunch can make you feel sluggish in the afternoon, too. (Some people do both. They skip breakfast, then eat an enormous lunch because they’re starving – and then wonder why they’re out of steam most of the day). When you eat a big, heavy meal, a lot of energy is required to digest it. As blood gets diverted towards your digestive tract to help the process along, you’ll start feeling the need to take a nap.
Staying well-hydrated is important, too. When you become dehydrated, it can affect your mood and your ability to think clearly. Keep water and herbal teas handy and sip on them throughout the day. Some people rely on caffeinated beverages in order to stay perky. This isn’t necessarily a problem unless caffeine interferes with your ability to get a good night’s sleep. If you’re sensitive to it, best to stick with caffeine-free beverages.
Protein foods help to make meals more filling and satisfying, which is why one of the defenses against the afternoon slump is a good offense – in the form of a balanced lunch that includes some lean protein. Make sure your lunch includes some healthy lowfat protein to help fight hunger, and a supply of good carbs to provide you with a steady energy source. A mixed vegetable salad with some grilled fish, a chicken-veggie stir-fry with brown rice, or a protein shake with fruit would all fill the bill at lunch time.
A mid-afternoon snack that includes protein should also be part of your overall plan, too. A lot of people try to get by without snacking because they feel it just adds extra calories to their day – but they usually just make up for it by eating a really big dinner.
Protein shakes work great as a mid-afternoon snack, or you can also try a protein bar, a carton of yogurt with some fruit, some raw veggies with hummus, or a can of tuna with a handful of cherry tomatoes. Again, the combination of lean protein and healthy carbohydrates will help keep the afternoon slump away and help keep you satisfied – and energized – all afternoon long.*
*Written by Susan Bowerman. Susan Bowerman is Director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife. Susan is a Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.
*Article originally posted on Discover Good Nutrition.
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