Still tired at 3 pm?
Also known as brain fog. What causes it, and how can it be prevented?
Firstly I don’t work in an office so I don’t want to come across as the ‘wellness expert’ that guesses how other people feel or fully understands what its like to be behind a desk for most part of the day. I don’t have colleagues bringing in cakes their kids baked and popping them on the biscuit table at 3 pm. That being said I do have my own types of afternoon slum and the more online my nutritional coaching and fitness training becomes the more I have to suck it up and listen to my own advice. To combat these I use some tried and tested methods as well as some of my own ideas.
I don’t tend to lose focus that much during the afternoon anymore but I used to. It would often be around the same time each day, usually about 2 PM. My motivation wanes, and I slow down. Tasks that I fly through in the morning begin to feel arduous. I start thinking about what I can put off until tomorrow. Or I reach for a cup of coffee to give myself an energy boost, knowing full well that afternoon coffee rarely works as well as it does in the morning.
Many people experience an afternoon slump. You may think low blood sugar is at work, but scientists have found it often has less to do with your blood (unless you just smashed 3 jam donut) and more to do with your brains hormonal rhythm.
Serotonin — the feel-good chemical. Serotonin is a chemical in our bodies that helps to stabilise moods. It keeps us motivated and energised throughout the day. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience has found that our serotonin levels are at their lowest around 2 PM.
Melatonin — the sleep hormone. Our bodies naturally take a small temperature dip in the afternoon and start producing melatonin. This is your body telling you to start winding down or go take a nap.
How to break through the brain fog
Unless you live in a country that accepts napping as standard, you need to find other ways to keep up your energy level through the afternoon slow down.
So let attack this from 2 angles: 1) increase serotonin and 2) decrease melatonin around that time.
Drink water: Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day. This study shows that even mild dehydration can cause difficulty concentrating and contributes to fatigue. This I do notice personally. I am an absolute bod (great term for the 80’s kids reading!) for drinking water during the weekdays. I’ll often have 2/3 litres downed by lunch! The weekend however I wouldn’t have seen a glass of water until I remember late in the afternoon and by then its too late, I’m knackered!
Get active. Get up and walk around. Take a walk around the block or engage in some simple movements if you have the room and don’t mind doing star jumps in the middle of the office. Maybe time your gym visit for 2/3pm if you have the flexibility. Even if you are only able to walk around your office or home, getting up and moving around will do a lot to help fight off the brain fog.
Avoid sugary snacks. A snack filled with processed sugar will end up giving you a quick high, but then a drop when you crash, contributing to even more brain fog. Fruit carries fibre and other goodies so isn’t quite as bad but some people even struggle with that. Carb heavy lunches have a similar effect unless the food you’re eating is in recovery of a workout or preparing for the next. If it's sitting in your tummy while you’re filling in spreadsheets at your desk the zzzz’s are on their way!
Limit caffeine. Did I just say that?.... It may feel like a cup of coffee is what you need, but caffeine late in the day can affect your sleep at night. In turn, this will make tomorrow’s afternoon slump even worse and have a cascading effect thought the week. This is totally dependent on your ability to handle and process caffeine however. Trial and error for this one I’m afraid to see how it effects you personally.
Turn up the lights. Open your blinds and get natural sunlight if you can. In a windowless office, turn up the lights or plugin an extra lamp for more light. This study found that only one hour of increased artificial light helped office workers to feel more energetic. A walk outside is double bubble! Sunlight and exercise Boom!
Laugh. You will find most of these other tips elsewhere but this one is my own little go too remedy. Find something funny to watch or talk about. Have some banter or humorous dialogue for the more highbrow of my readers. (who am I kidding I don’t have any highbrow readers!)
Don’t neglect a healthy diet
We’re just beginning to understand the effect what we eat has on our bodies, both mentally and physically. Some foods will naturally boost your serotonin levels.
Foods don’t contain serotonin themselves, but they do contain tryptophan. And high-tryptophan foods combined with appropriate volumes or carbohydrates have been found to boost serotonin levels.
Some foods high in tryptophan include:
Nuts and seeds
Cheese (no this is not the green light for the cheese board late at night!!)
Remember, the high tryptophan foods work best to increase serotonin when combined with a healthy carbohydrate. So try snacks like whole-grain crackers with cheese. Or a turkey sandwich made on whole-grain bread.
As tempting as it is to reach for coffee and a sugary snack when you start to wear out in the afternoon, you’ll have better results if you turn up the lights, eat something healthy, and take a brisk walk around the block. If that doesn’t work I’ll buy you a coffee myself!
(empty threat as I live in London and we’re not actually allowed to meet anyone anymore)