You’ve had a productive morning, hit all your tasks and your boss is looking pleased. One power lunch later and suddenly everything is going to pot as the dreaded afternoon tiredness has set in.
So why does it happen?
Well, humans are built to sleep twice per day, a main sleep at night with a regular nap sometime in the afternoon. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would enjoy a nap in the hottest part of the day, similar to the Spanish and their Siesta. This problem gets worse for many people who willingly ruin their sleep habits with modern luxuries.
It’s a pretty interesting concept and one I struggled with for a long time, Read on to find out what I discovered along with the coping tips I use pretty effectively these days.
Why do I get tired in the afternoon?
The latest scientific consensus indicates that humans are not designed for out modern model of one long sleep at night, actually we perform best on a ‘biphasic’ sleep pattern which involves a nap during the day.
This would correspond with the hottest time of the day, the afternoon tiredness is often referred to as the ‘2.30 feeling’, which in our old African climes would be a smart time to be out of the sun.
The fact is, as Dr Fiona Kerr says in this article, “Humans are built for two sleeps a day.”
The biological need for naps comes from our inbuilt circadian rhythm and the greater our need for sleep the longer we go without sleeping.
The homeostatic pressure for us to sleep starts upon awakening and builds throughout the day, reaching its peak in the afternoon. The human circadian signal for wakefulness supersedes this sometime in late afternoon, which is why most people don’t get the same urge to sleep in the evening. And also is why it can be terrible difficult to fall asleep even 1 or 2 hour before your usual bed time!
This is compounded by a variety of ways in which we can make sleep harder for ourself, including caffeine and alcohol use, poor sleep hygiene, blue light and general electronic misuse, a diet full of refined sugar and carbohydrates, our complete reliance on electronic lights and abandoning the waking up and gonig to sleep with the rise and setting of the sun and a whole lot more.
Civilization has given us safety and luxury that our ancestors could’ve only dreamed of, but it’s wrecked our sleep habits.
How can I stop getting tired in the afternoon?
Unless you work in Silicon Valley at a company that offers ‘sleep pods’ then unfortunately there’s no easy answer to this question.
The 9-5 work day is utterly unaccommodating to the idea that humans naturally become tired in the afternoon, the entire Western world simply accepting that 80% of the output produced by their employees happens before lunch.
Once that 2pm hits it’s time to chill on Facebook and see how Brett’s getting on over in accounts. Good old Brett…
Your best angle is to approach from the direction of thinking, ‘what can I do to stop feeling more tired generally?’ If you’re regularly getting fewer than 7 hours sleep than that is potentially an issue.
There are those who require a small amount of sleep but these ‘short sleepers’ as they are known comprise only 1% of the population. I’ll discuss caffeine a little later, I think that has dangerous consequences for heavier users and amplifying the afternoon slump is one of them, or has been for me personally.
Are there examples of humans who sleep in the afternoon?
Example 1 – The Siesta
We’ve all heard of the famous Spanish tradition of the midday nap, the Siesta. This sleep is taken right during when the afternoon slump would be, after lunch in early afternoon, and even shops and restaurants opening hours are built around it.
It’s actually not confined to just Spain, there are lots of countries around the Mediterranean that have a similar tradition and it was also exported to many of the Spanish colonies like the Phillipines. It seems that the tradition of the nap is to help avoid the hot temperatures of the day and to extend the social time of the evening.
What is interesting in Spain is that it seems to be dying out. While there are certainly places where EVERYTHING shuts down between 2pm and 5pm each day, on the whole the Spaniards are adapting to the framework the rest of the world has adopted – no daytime naps!
A recent survey discovered that 60% of Spaniards never have a siesta and another 18% only take them somtimes. It seems it is the preserve of the older folks who retain their cultural traditions from a different time.
Example 2 – China
The most populous country in the world also have an interesting culture around napping, the ‘noon nap’ where partakers will rest their heads on subways, against office desks or
The culture in most Western countries is that sleeping at work is a sign of unprofessionalism, laziness, or worse, being hungover. But in China it is apparently considered simply a way of resting so that you have more energy for the afternoon. I think I can get on board with that!
Example 3 – Greece
Another country that sits on the Med and possibly a warmer climate than Spain, the denizens of Greece also enjoy a forty winks in the afternoon. In fact, some of the best research on daytime napping has been done in Greece and it was discovered that it provides cardiovascular benefits.
The study of more than 23,000 Greek adults — the biggest and best examination of the subject to date — found that those who regularly took a midday siesta were more than 30 percent less likely to die of heart disease.
This lends more support to the idea that humans are happier, healthier and quite simply supposed to take a nap during the middle of the day.
What’s the ‘2.30 feeling?
If you ever hear someone talking about the 2.30 feeling, just know that it’s them complaining about the inevitable afternoon tiredness that saps their energy and motivation.
It’s funny how it’s settled on such a specific time, and also funny how accurate that time is. I think if you asked a million people, they’d all agree 2.30pm is the worst point in the day.
In fact, the ‘2.30 feeling’ is so special that it even has its own Urban Dictionary entry, which I’ll display here in all its splendor.
When you haven’t had a five hour energy, and you find it hard to stay awake.
Alternatively: an excuse in a boring situation, when you just don’t want to be there.
Boss: Johnson, wake up!
Johnson: So sorry, I got that 2:30 feeling
What does ‘biphasic’ mean?
There are a number of different terms that are used to describe sleep schedules, some of them that seem very odd if you’ve not encountered them before.
· Monophasic – Sleeping once per day. A long, deep sleep while it is nighttime, usually. The standard of the modern Western world.
· Biphasic – Sleeping twice per day. Still retaining a long sleep at night but including a nap during the day. Often considered the most natural sleep pattern, biphasic sleepers make sure to get some kind of rest in the middle of the day be that a long 2-3 hour sleep or simply a short 10-15 minute power nap.
· Polyphasic – Sleeping mutiple times a day. More unusual still, polyphasic sleeping involves multiple sleep periods per day, with a view to reducing the total amount of sleep needed. At the extreme end of the schedule is routines like the ‘Uberman’ which involves 6 20-minute naps during the course of a day, totalling just 2 hours sleep total! Polyphasic sleeping has been linked with polymaths like Leonardo Da Vinci and Nikolas Tesla.
The sad truth is that, unless you have been blessed with retirement or a wonder work schedule, sleeping during the day is an impossibility.
Work demands your best hours from you, and that includes that two hour period in the afternoon when it would be so nice to just rest your head for an hour or so.
I’ve written before that in the worst circumstances, a 10-15 minute power nap can suffice to get energy levels restarted but it’s not practical to disappear to the bathroom every single day…
Should I drink more caffeine to get through the afternoon slump?
Caffeine is a such a funny thing. By far humanity’s most popular (and most legal!) psychoactive drug, many of us rely on it to wake us up in the morning and get us functioning.
It can come in useful at any time when we want to wake ourselves up, so having a coffee to aid us through our 2pm slump seems like a smart idea, but I’m going to argue that it is not.
This used to be my own strategy by the way, and it worked for a few hours, but what would happen is I’d come home from work absolutely drained from working all day and keeping my nervous system running through heavy doses of you-know-what.
My evenings were a joke, I’d never accomplish anything, never go anywhere and usually just nap and go on reddit.
The thing people forget about caffeine is that it is still a drug. It’s easy to think that something that comes in such innocuous a form as a warm beverage or a cold can can be that damaging, and it certainly does not have the negative impact of smoking or even excess sugar, but too much caffeine is not a good thing.
A key thing to bear in mind is that caffeine has a half life of 6 hours.
That means that it takes your body 6 hours to process and dispose of half of it, so even 12 hours after a coffee you still have the remnants of a quarter of a cup of coffee running through your system and crucially, if you’re drinking that coffee in the afternoon, can affect your sleeping habits.
I would hazard a guess that most people think coffee doesn’t affect them after a few hours but any caffeine you consume can and will be stopping you sleep later in the day. Even that 7am Latte might be a problem!
In addition, it is addictive. I know personally after going through the withdrawal symptoms, it definitely can be both physically addictive in that your body craves it and reacts badly if you don’t get it, but also psychologically addictive in that it’s a part of your routine that has been snatched away and you’re not sure what to replace it with.
Giving up caffeine is not easy, I did it and it really helped with my afternoon tiredness, so much so that I’ll give the skinny on how it was for me and if it was worth it. Right now, actually.
My experience with quitting caffeine
I’m not going to recommend this to everyone, but here’s how my own caffeine-free journey unfolded. At the time of realizing I needed to change something I was drinking two large coffees morning and afternoon and topping that up with 2-3 diet cokes throughout the day.
Falling asleep was becoming harder and harder and I spent far too much of my time obsessing about caffeine and in particular stressing when I wasn’t sure where my next cup was coming from. Not healthy…
· 1st Day – Could not function at all. Simply incredibly tired. I did the absolute minimum all day, came home and collapsed onto my bed and enjoyed a 12-hour sleep!
· 2nd-4th Days – Now, the headaches started. It felt like a sharp, piercing headache that would come and go, I was still pretty tired and sleeping lots but nothing like that first day. I was getting really strong cravings for something caffeinated on these days!
· 5th-7th Days – At this point, withdrawal symptoms are on the wane if still present. The headaches are mostly gone and there is a nagging tiredness and a desire for some caffeine, but nothing too bad.
· 8th Day Onwards – After this I felt relatively normal. The withdrawal symptoms had definitely disappeared although it took a long time for me to feel energetic throughout the day. And I never got back that same rush after a big dose!
Do I feel better?
I’d have to say yes. I certainly miss the surge of energy and mild euphoric buzz from a great cup of coffee but given the impact it was having on my sleep and health I’m happy to be off. I also don’t miss the huge peaks and valleys in wakefulness and tiredness rather than the steady energy I get all day, even if I do still suffer a little during the afternoon!
Can less carbs help?
I’m a big fan of eating fewer carbs, particularly refined carbs like sugary products, wheat based stuff and rice. In my experience, it has helped massively with general energy levels and oddly, makes waking up in the morning ten times easier.
I found this article which echoes these thoughts and provides more background. It discusses how your body’s preferred energy source of carbs can cause blood sugar rushes which cause great distress to your fatigue levels. Here’s a good quote:
Because most are primarily burning carbs as fuel, afternoon fatigue is typically related to post-lunch hypoglycemia. By switching your body from using carbs as its primary fuel to burning fats instead, or becoming “fat adapted,” you virtually eliminate such drops in energy levels.
Essentially they are talking about a very low carb diet, also known as a ketogenic diet, where your body switches over to using dietary or body fat as fuel instead of carbs.
It is a bit outside the scope of this article to discuss the many facets of this diet but I do follow it and can say I’ve had great improvements in my health and sleeping pattern because of it.