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Well, you've done it. You've gone and eaten yourself into a food coma. Your belly feels stretched beyond capacity and you can barely move your limbs. The ideal solution is no doubt to surrender to a tryptophan-induced slumber until it all blows over. But since the pleasure of a gastronomic blackout isn't always an option — your family insists on a holiday round of charades, or your friends don't feel like carrying your limp body around all night — what's Plan B?
You probably already suspect the answer to this question involves moving your body. And you're hoping this is not the only answer.
But first, it may help to learn what's actually happening down there. We talked with Dr. Satish Rao, Director, Neurogastroenterology & GI Motility at Augusta University, to find out. "It's interesting," he begins. "'Food coma' is very much an American term. It's not used elsewhere in the world." (We use it down here, Dr. Rao!) Dr. Rao says there are three factors contributing to this singular physiological experience.
"First, you have stolen blood from the rest of the body and diverted it to the gut, to facilitate the metabolism of the food." He compares it to when you exercise, and blood in your body is diverted to your muscles, heart, and lungs to better oxygenate your blood and feed the muscles. "Literally, the reverse happens when you have overfilled your stomach," Dr. Rao says. Blood from other parts of the body, including your brain, goes to your gut to help support the activity there.
But it's not just the gathering of the blood that makes you feel lethargic. Just like when you exercise and release systemic hormones endorphin and enkephalin, your gut releases those hormones and others such as somatostatin, and Peptide YY when you eat a lot. Only instead of that runner's high, they relax you. "They make you stay quiet and additionally they slow the stomach motility and emptying, thereby prolonging the feeling of fullness," Dr. Rao says. Essentially this is the body trying to buy more time to digest the food. The gut also produces a more local hormone called ghrelin, which stimulates hunger. When you eat a lot ghrelin goes down, leaving you less inclined to eat more. Combined, the effect of the hormones and the stealing of blood are almost like a "do not disturb" sign for your body and its digestive system.
And finally, when we eat too much, it's most often high-fat and/or high-sugar food. Not too many of us feast overzealously on salad, after all. The fat, Dr. Rao says, tends to interfere with the stomach's ability to empty. "The greater the fat content, the slower the stomach empties," he says. In fact, a small amount of fat will shoot out into the bowels where it sends a message to the stomach to slow the breakdown process with the help of Peptide YY.
That means you're going to stay full longer, which will discourage you from eating more. A temporary imbalance between insulin and blood glucose may also contribute to this effect. It's a protective chain reaction with many moving parts that gives your body time to recalibrate and return to its resting state. Once your food has finally broken down and left the stomach, and the hormones have returned to their baseline and blood returns to the other organs, you may finally emerge from your food coma. "All of this takes time," Dr. Rao says.
So you should just stay out of your body's way and go gently into that good food coma until it all blows over (so to speak), right? Well, you could, but you don't have to. Dr. Rao and two nutritionists recommended the same remedy, and yes, this is the part you knew was coming and didn't want to hear.
"After you finish your meal, go take a 15-minute (or longer) walk," advises registered dietitian and nutrition editor for Bodybuilding.com Paul Salter. "Walking after a meal enhances transit time of food through your digestive system and helps lower blood glucose levels because more glucose is taken up by your hormones." He also recommends drinking water throughout the rest of the day to help move things along in the digestive system.
Moderate exercise will also redirect blood supply from the gut to the muscles altogether, says dietitian and Loyola Marymount University professor of health and human services Hawley Almstedt. And exercise will counter the hormones that make you sleepy. "Even small amounts of activity would activate the 'fight or flight' branch of the nervous system enabling us to feel more energetic in a few minutes," Almstedt says.
Dr. Rao agrees with the walking strategy for the same reasons. In addition there are a couple other things you can do. Papaya contains enzymes that can help break down food and move things along a little faster. You could take papaya enzymes in capsules, or even eat a little of the fruit itself.
Hot coffee will also stimulate the stomach emptying, as will tea, though to a lesser degree. And chilli pepper has that same stimulating effect. So maybe have an espresso with dessert and then take a stroll outdoors, where you can get some fresh air.
So yes, the answer is to do that thing which is what you least feel like doing in the moment. It really comes down to what you find least uncomfortable, that stuffed feeling or getting up and taking a walk. Take it one step at a time. Get your footing, pick up your coat, yell at the nearest human to go outside with you. Hell, maybe making it all the way to the door will be enough to turn things around for your digestion. Probably not, but once you've made it that far you might as well keep going. You're vowing never to eat this much again, aren't you? Sure, keep moving while you tell yourself that.