In our culture, the nine-to-five working day has become an institution. Unfortunately, our biological rhythms are not always in synch with our cultural practices. Our sleeping and our working are supposed to be separate but many people feel so tired after their lunch hour that all they really want to do is lay down and take a nap. Since we have never adopted the custom of the afternoon siesta, this feeling is neither convenient nor pleasant, which is why most people who have experienced fatigue on the job would like to find ways to boost their energy levels so they can avoid the afternoon 'blahs'.
The Biology of Sleep
Before we go to sleep at night, the core temperatures of our bodies drop, which signals the brain that it is time to release melatonin. This chemical helps the body and mind relax so it is possible for a tired human being to drift off to sleep. However, this process is not restricted to nighttime. Between the hours of two and four in the afternoon, the core temperature of the body lowers again, preparing the body for a relaxing and refreshing nap. So it turns out that the afternoon siesta is actually more natural from a biological standpoint than our custom of working continuously right through the afternoon.
The Role of Diet
While a slowing afternoon metabolism is a natural tendency, there is a difference between sleepiness and the kind of overwhelming fatigue that many experience following their mid-day meal. The real villain in this situation is not so much biology as it is diet. In order for energy levels to be sustained throughout the day, it is very important that people eat wisely and consistently. Skipping breakfast and eating a lunch high in carbohydrates set the body up to crash in the afternoon because this pattern leads to the release of too much insulin in the blood stream and too much serotonin in the brain, both of which cause sudden fatigue and a strong desire to sleep.
The antidote to this is to eat a good, solid breakfast that combines carbohydrates and proteins in equal amounts, followed by a moderately sized lunch that also includes a good mix between these two types of calories. Proteins stimulate the production in the brain of neurotransmitters that are responsible for higher energy levels, which is why protein sources such as eggs, nuts, seeds, beans and peanut butter should always be included in the first two meals of the day in combination with reasonable amounts of complex carbohydrates.
While many people look for a sugar or caffeine pick-me-up, these substances only give a temporary rush, which is inevitably followed by another crash and still more fatigue. In truth, the consumption of healthy, balanced meals is the only kind of eating that will allow the body to release energy in a consistent, sustainable, and reliable pattern throughout the day.
Other Ways to Boost Energy
It is actually impossible for the brain to produce melatonin when exposed to bright white light, which is why getting out into the sun for awhile during the afternoon can reduce sleepiness. Exercise can stimulate energy levels at any time, so taking a brisk walk through the hallways or using the stairs instead of the elevator can help lift the afternoon fog. Cold water is another good cure for fatigue – if drinking it doesn't produce the desired effect, a little cold water splashed on the face can certainly help wake anyone up. Finally, if all else fails, taking a short nap may be a good alternative. However, afternoon naps should never last longer than 20 minutes because longer naps tend to leave people feeling groggy rather than refreshed. Also, these kinds of naps should be avoided by anyone who is having problems with nighttime insomnia because in that situation they tend to reinforce unhealthy sleeping patterns.
Staying Alert and Staying Effective
The afternoon 'blahs' can make it difficult to get things done on the job for even the most conscientious employee. Fortunately, afternoon fatigue is only partially a biological tendency, and it can usually be counteracted by improved eating habits and a few other simple steps that are virtually guaranteed to give anyone a much-needed burst of energy in the afternoon.