Defeating the Afternoon Crash

By Teresa Pangan, Genesis Dietitian

Afternoon CrashA coworker recently shared with me that she was feeling tired mid afternoon and wanted to know if there was anything she could do to stop the craving to put her head down on her desk for a quick nap.

Does this sound familiar?  Morning goes great; you punch out a lot of work, breeze through your emails and to-do list.  At lunch you do a quick meal and around 2 p.m., it hits.  Your eyelids get heavy and you have to stand up and walk around to keep from shutting your eyes. Even another mug of coffee won't keep you awake.

Causes for the Afternoon Crash

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This afternoon fatigue around 2 p.m. is actually a natural part of our body's clock. Your body releases your brain’s natural sleep chemical, melatonin, telling your body it’s time to go get some shut eye between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.

The exhaustion you feel in the middle of the day is just like the tiredness you feel before bedtime at night. It has to do with a dip in your core body temperature.

Right before you go to sleep at night, your core temperature begins to drop, which is a signal to the brain to release melatonin. The exact same thing happens on a smaller scale between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. It’s a mini-signal to your brain to get sleepy.

Basically, because we wake up super early for work, our body wants to go to bed in the afternoon because our natural clock is telling us to do so.

Recharge with a Nap

The first temptation is to take a nap.  Not a bad idea.  The Spaniards actually take an afternoon nap very seriously. It's called a siesta.  I vacationed in Salamanca, Spain for a summer and found the shops really do close down from 2-5 p.m. Some Spaniards use this time to take a mid afternoon nap.

If you are lucky enough to work at The Huffington Post or Google, you can recharge mid afternoon using one of their napping pods that block out the light and give you a light vibration when it is time to wake up.  Founder Ariana Huffington put the napping pods in after she fainted from exhaustion and sleep-deprivation and ended up with a broken cheekbone and stitches.

There is nothing wrong with taking a mini-nap to recharge so long as your employer goes along with it.  The key is to make it a power nap and not a deep sleep nap.  You are safe at 20 minutes or less but longer than this can make it difficult to go to sleep at night.

If like most Americans a nap is not a reality, there are still several options to beat the afternoon slump.

Maximize Your Energy with Food

What you eat does matter for your energy level.  A nap can help, but if you are eating all the wrong things, you will still feel sluggish.


First, you must eat breakfast.  The word "breakfast" means break the fast.  Your body has been 8 to 10 hours without fuel, so you need to within 2 hours of getting up give it some fuel to start the day.  A cup of coffee does not count. 

You want a protein and carb with a small fruit or veggie.  The trick for most is getting a protein. Milk may not be enough of a protein since it has the milk sugar lactose in it.  I recommend if you have cereal, try some chopped nuts on top or quinoa mixed in (a high protein grain). One egg; half golf ball serving of nuts for women and full golf ball serving for men; an ounce of lean turkey, ham, or salmon are good morning proteins, too. 

Then for lunch check out your carbs.  I find many people are trying to fill up on refined carbs which are going to go through their system quickly.  The best trio for lunch is a lean protein, whole-grain carb and vegetable.  Check that you are eating just one whole-grain serving and not two.  Also, play around with the whole-grain carbohydrate you are eating at lunch to find if one tends to stick with you longer than others.  Here are some to try:

  • Whole-grain bread (minimum 2 grams of fiber per slice and first ingredient listed is a whole-grain)
  • Whole-wheat pasta (I love whole-wheat penne for lunch.  You can eat it without a fork if you are in a bind with your fingers)
  • Brown rice (if you're not crazy about brown rice you can do a half-and-half with white rice)
  • Whole-wheat wrap (high fiber flatbread is my favorite)
  • Quinoa (this is a high fiber seed that is also a good source of protein and easy to cook; eaten hot or cold)
  • Whole-wheat english muffin (half makes a great mini pizza for lunch)

Also, avoid the temptation to call a salad lunch.  You need protein to hold you through the afternoon, not a lot, but a hardboiled egg, chopped nuts, black beans or a hummus dip are all good proteins to eat with a salad.  

And avoid lunches that are lop-sided with fat.  A little fat at every meal is good. Healthy fats help absorb fat soluble vitamins into the body.  However, an overly fat laden meal will take longer to digest and sit in your stomach longer.  This will give you a sense of low energy.  

More Energy-Boosting Tips

If you gave your breakfast and lunch an energy makeover and still are fighting the afternoon slump, try these tips to boost your energy.

Get moving: Take a brisk walk, or better yet, find the staircase in your office building and do five or six flights to get your blood pumping and your body warmed up. In addition to taking your mind off what you've been focused on, just moving can help to re-energize you. A study found that subjects who walked briskly for 10 minutes had higher energy levels for 1 to 2 hours afterwards and reduced their tension. If you don't have a staircase handy, try doing some jumping jacks, squats or lunges in your office. Anything to get the blood circulating and stimulates your brain due to the increased blood flow will get you feeling more awake.

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Get sunlight: Most offices have light equivalent to 500 candles bright.  The sun at sunrise emits 10,000 candles bright and at noon in summer 100,000 candles bright. Light is the main cue influencing circadian rhythms. Bright sunlight helps reset your chronological clock by keeping down the amount of melatonin (the sleep hormone) your body produces during this normal afternoon circadian dip. 

An easy solution is to take your lunch outside or go outside 15-30 minutes before your afternoon for a 10 minute break.  This means if you feel drowsy around 2:15 p.m., go outside at 2 p.m. for ten minutes. If you live in a colder climate and going outside is not possible, the white light you get through a window will still help.  It won't be the same as being outside, but even a small dose of white light next to a window for a few minutes will help.  

Use blue light: Day light is rich in blue light. By using artificial lighting indoors with blue lights, you can maximize the alertness of your workplace lighting. It is far from the same power generated by natural light, but research finds it is the best solution for indoors. Energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs are a good source of blue light.

Any one or a combination of these should give you a boost in your afternoon energy.  Avoid the temptation to make a trip to the vending machine for a Coke or Snickers. Those won’t wake you up.

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