Anyone who’s experienced an afternoon slump will agree: Fighting off the fatigue is tough. When there are three hours left in the work day and the urge to sleep is high, simply keeping your eyes open feels like a challenge.
Fortunately, this post-lunch fatigue is closely tied to our sleeping, eating and activity patterns. Making small lifestyle changes can help you ward off tiredness and stay more productive throughout the workday.
1. Do Your Most Intensive Work in the Morning
Plan your work around natural highs and lows in alertness, health writer Linda Wasmer Andrews suggests. She points out that people typically experience peak alertness between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. This is the best time to tackle your most challenging tasks because your brain is at a cognitive high.
Andrews also points out that people tend to experience an urge to sleep between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. This is why cognitively demanding tasks are best completed in the morning. Saving a simple task for these afternoon hours can help give your brain a refresh without succumbing totally to sleep.
Blogger Kalyn Brooke suggests holding these hours for tasks like clearing out your inbox, cleaning out drawers or folding a load of laundry (for those who work from home). When the afternoon sluggishness begins to creep in, Brooke recognizes this as a warning to get up from her seat and switch up the task she’s working on.
Arranging your daily tasks around an anticipated tired spell can ensure that you get the most important work done each day. As for warding off the fatigue entirely, it may be harder than we originally thought. Sleep specialist Dr. Michael Breus stresses that afternoon slumps are simply part of our biology. “The body produces melatonin when our core body temperature reaches a high point, and then drops. That drop is a signal to the pineal gland to produce melatonin.”
Dr. Breus explains that this drop in temperature and increase in melatonin tend to occur between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.
Scheduling a short nap (20 to 30 minutes) can boost alertness and prevent fatigue later in the day. Dr. James K. Walsh explains how the body is naturally inclined to sleep at night when its dark. This is true even for people who work atypical hours and have to sleep during the day. "Napping before work combined with consuming caffeine while on the job is an effective strategy for remaining alert on the night shift," Dr. Walsh says.
Similarly, getting enough sleep and waking up feeling refreshed can ensure that melatonin levels stay low during the daylight hours.
2. Reach for a Healthy Snack to Balance Your Blood Sugar
Processed foods and sugar tend to exacerbate late-afternoon fatigue. This is true for foods like granola bars, fruit smoothies and yogurt, registered nutritionist Maya Feller explains.
Although we recognize some of these foods as technically healthy, the simple carbohydrates and sugar found in them cause glucose levels to spike. This is what leads to drops in glucose, or crashes, soon after eating. “If you’re on the go and a bar is your only option, look for ones that have 5g of sugar or less per serving and ingredients that you recognize,” Feller advises.
Opting for nutrient-dense foods is key for keeping daytime fatigue under control, says author and gynecologist Dr. Sara Gottfried. She points to cortisol, the hormone that governs blood sugar, digestion, hunger, physical activity and stress management, as a major factor in after-lunch drowsiness. Chronic stress can cause people to experience high levels of cortisol, which affects the normal sleeping and waking cycle.
The result? Lack of sleep, depleted adrenals and chronic daytime fatigue. Choosing healthy snacks while also considering variety, balance and moderation is key for maximizing the energy we get from food, according to Dr. Diane Horowitz, Maryann Foley and Raymond Kent Turley at The University of Rochester Medical Center.
Think of snacks as mini meals to provide nutrition and lasting energy throughout the day. Low-fat, high-energy food digests quickly and provides fuel to sustain you. Likewise, staying hydrated from morning to night can support steady energy levels, says writer Sarah Kuta. Instead of sipping on coffee — which can dehydrate you even further — opt for water to boost alertness.
"The big picture here is that the more dehydrated you are the less sharp you are,” says Dr. Ronald Roth, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “And your decision-making abilities get lost sooner than later."
Exercise and physical activity are nearly as important as nutritious snacks when it comes to daytime fatigue.
Productivity and tech writer Kayla Matthews suggests taking a brief walk at lunchtime or heading to the gym for a light workout when sleepiness strikes. Movement is a great way to stop a slump before it happens, and simply stretching at your desk can go a long way for fatigue prevention.
Isometric exercises, for example, are an energizing practice that you don’t need a gym for. Tensing a muscle and holding it encourages blood flow to that area, says Nicola Leach of Alliance Work Partners. Try tensing one part of the body, such as the bicep, for five to 10 seconds before releasing. Move on to the calves, thighs, chest, stomach and glutes. Since this exercise doesn’t take long or require space, it can be done inside the workplace.
Another benefit of daily movement and activity is that it can make you both happier and more productive.
4. Activate Your Senses
In a 2018 study on the impact of nature and mood, University of Regina researchers Calum Neill, Janelle Gerard & Katherine D. Arbuthnott confirmed that contact with nature boosts happy thoughts. Moreover, they found that the duration of contact with nature doesn’t have a major impact on the intensity of these emotions. This suggests that even just a few minutes could have a lasting impact on keeping you more joyful and alert.
Exposure to nature keeps us awake in part due to sun exposure. This is because the sun inhibits melatonin, which (as discussed previously) is the hormone responsible for inducing feelings of sleepiness.
“Melatonin production increases when you don’t have enough sun exposure because your body thinks that it’s nighttime,” says Krizia Liquido, health and lifestyle editor at Verily. “Absorbing direct sunlight for 15 to 20 minutes will slow down your body’s melatonin production.” She adds that taking a walk in the sunshine can slow the body’s production of melatonin, which is why a noontime mosey can combat the post-lunch crash.
Adding essential oils to your daily routine can also keep you more alert, Ashley Abramson writes at Brit+Co. She explains that scent is proven to transform a person’s mood by influencing brain activity. Choosing the right scent is important for having the intended effect, however, since the impact of essential oils can be strong.
“Citrus oils like orange and grapefruit are also known to perk up the senses, while minty scents, like peppermint, have an invigorating effect. If you like earthier smells, cinnamon and rosemary can also be stimulating options to go with.”
When tiredness strikes in the afternoon, Abramson suggests taking five to 10 minutes to relax and breathe in an essential oil.