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Have yourself a merry (little) noche buena

During the holidays, we tend to ask ourselves if our stomachs are fuller than our dinner tables, what exactly is food coma, and just how we could relieve ourselves.

It is that time of the year again—Christmas carols are blasted on radios, parols are up, and families try to get together. 

Especially among Filipinos, the holidays are synonymous with merrymaking, at least for those who can afford such celebrations. With these festivities, one can never go without food—and more often than not, households prepare excessive amounts. 

Though we are reminded to be cautious of how much and what we eat, how can one resist? When served with crispy lechon belly, sweet and salty Christmas ham, mouth-watering lumpiang shanghai, meaty spaghetti, creamy macaroni salad, and freshly steamed bibingka and puto bumbong, temptation is hard to fight off. And so we indulge—up until we reach what seems to be our tummy’s limit.  

For Tiffanie Bejar (V, MEM-MR), this limit is usually met and determined after noche buena and media noche. She describes that in her experiences, her “tummy is so hard, it’s hard to breathe sometimes.” Bejar notes that if she consumes more food or fluids during this state, she would feel like vomiting. And after a while, she would feel drowsiness kicking in despite maintaining the same energy level. 

Bejar’s experience is a manifestation of postprandial somnolence—commonly known as food coma. This is “a subjective state of drowsiness or decreased energy that can occur after ingestion of meals and lasts a few hours,” Twitter user @pinoygastro and gastroenterologist Dr. Virgil Lo states. 

Our body’s food processing factory

The process of consuming and then breaking down food is facilitated by our digestive system, from one end of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to the other. 

According to the United States National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, digestion starts in the mouth when one chews food. Afterward, the food passes through the esophagus where a series of muscle contractions called peristalsis facilitates the churning of food and brings it down to the stomach. 

While the upper muscles of the stomach relax to allow food to enter, the lower muscles mix it with digestive juices. Partially digested food or chyme moves to the small intestine, where it is further broken down by enzymes and bile produced by the pancreas and the liver, respectively. This allows nutrients to be absorbed into the bloodstream, while waste products—usually undigested food—move to the large intestine. 

This is normally what happens inside the body. But during postprandial somnolence, in response to a solid meal, “the stomach distends and the parasympathetic nervous system is activated.” Lo explains that once this metaphorical switch is turned on, the parasympathetic nervous system shifts the body into a rest and digest mode—the opposite of our fight or flight disposition—“which facilitates digestive enzyme production and results in a low state of energy.” 

Understanding manifestations

The diversion of blood flow away from other organs and into the GI tract to facilitate digestion “can precipitate a low state of energy, [and its] effect is directly proportional to the amount of meal ingested,” the gastroenterologist furthers.

He also points out that high carbohydrate meals have been shown to increase brain tryptophan, an amino acid used to create serotonin—otherwise known as the happy hormone—which “helps regulate sleep, digestion, and mood.” Thus, the post-meal feeling of happiness, satiety, and sleepiness can be entirely up to the food one consumes.

While it seems unusual, Lo clarifies that experiencing drowsiness and tiredness after eating a large meal is a natural response from the body. However, one feeling tired even after ingesting “standard-sized” meals is not normal. 

“People who experience frequent and continued drowsiness that does not improve with rest should consult a doctor,” Lo warns, citing that these could be symptoms of “more serious problems” like anemia, the condition where one does not have enough healthy red blood cells to carry sufficient oxygen to body tissues; infections; or metabolic diseases such as diabetes. 

Slow down

Once hunger strikes, controlling your appetite can be difficult. Then again, hunger is only one of the many reasons why we eat. Other factors, including sadness, stress, and tiredness may influence our overindulging behavior.

When on an empty stomach, our blood sugar levels go down. This is why one tends to feel unenergetic or drowsy when hungry. Since hunger is known to be an unpleasant and unignorable physical sensation, this may be accompanied by irritability and the inability to concentrate on certain tasks. 

Only after eating can your blood sugar levels rise once again. However, one must be cautious when eating because an excessive amount of glucose induces a spike in blood sugar levels, which if not regulated properly can ultimately lead to diabetes. To prevent a blood sugar spike, a hormone called insulin is generated by the pancreas, which then regulates glucose levels in the bloodstream by converting glucose into energy for the cell. 

However, eating large amounts of food in one sitting can cause your stomach to distend or bloat, making it harder for you to digest. Digestion time can also depend on what type of macronutrient molecule the food has in store. 

For example, Lo says that carbohydrate-rich food has a longer digestion period in comparison to protein-rich food because we lack the enzymes necessary to digest the complex molecules of carbohydrates. Similarly, since digestive enzymes are mostly water based, it may be even harder to digest lipid molecules because of its water insoluble property. This is why he says that “gastric emptying is slowest in fat-containing food” like butter. 

Though we usually associate food comas with bloatedness, Lo corrects that abdominal bloating is when gas builds up in the GI tract, which can occur as “undigested food gets broken down or when you swallow the air.” 

So technically, “the heavier and faster you eat, the more undigested food is in the stomach—that’s why people get bloated during food coma.” This is why nutritionists and dieticians always suggest chewing food slowly.

Feeding the holiday spirit 

Even during festivities, there will always be a way to enjoy a holiday feast while reducing your chances of dozing off right after dinner.

After overindulging, it is always important to have a glass of water by your side. Lo mentions that “drinking water can help flush out some of the consumed sodium”—a mineral that can cause bloating. 

As tempting as it may be to doze off, one must never lie down after eating, simply because stomach acid can move up into the esophagus, inducing acid reflux and slowing down digestion. Instead, Lo advises it would be best to go for a walk, “Physical activity can aid in digestion by stimulation of the GI tract, causing food to move more rapidly.”

Currently, there is no treatment for postprandial somnolence. But if one does not want to spend their holiday evenings bloated or lethargic, Lo mentions that “small, frequent meals” might do the trick.

Another is to maintain a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. Instead of overindulging in “carb- or fat-heavy” meals, Lo suggests eating more fiber-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables to “prevent energy dips” from happening. 

Lo reminds, however, that enjoying one over-the-top meal will not ruin your health; it is highly unlikely for an occasional episode of postprandial somnolence to induce serious harm to our bodies. In fact, it can serve as a reminder to keep tabs on our meals because as far as our stomachs can go, moderation and mindfulness of what we eat is the key to comfort and happiness. 

As per Lo’s encouragement: eat carefully, preserve your energy, and enjoy the rest of the holiday season.

By Ramon Castañeda

By Gabrielle Lema

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