Afternoon Energy Boosters

Feeling lazy after lunchtime? Follow these tips for beating the afternoon energy slump.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 19, 2007
5 min read

Does this sound familiar? You're going full steam ahead in the morning, plowing through work assignments or household tasks. You take a quick break for lunch -- or maybe just grab something at your desk -- and plan on getting right back to your routine. Instead, at about 2 p.m. you find your attention wandering and your focus flagging, and all you really want to do is take a nap. How can you get a quick energy boost to keep you going?

First, you should understand where that sudden crash probably came from. "There seems to be a natural rhythm or set clock in our bodies, so many people tend to feel a little sleepy around 2 or 3 in the afternoon," says Lona Sandon, RD, MEd, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "There seems to be something natural about this lull. Some cultures have the siesta, and people find that they're more productive and better able to concentrate if they take time off after lunch and come back later."

WebMD's sleep expert, Michael J. Breus, PhD, author of Beauty Sleep, explains that midday sleepiness is like a miniature version of the drowsiness you feel just before bedtime. "It has to do with a dip in your core body temperature," Breus says. "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."

But don't blame it all on your body's internal clock -- your body makes you sleepy, but your own eating habits may make you fatigued -- for a double whammy leading to a massive energy crash. "Often, people don't fuel their bodies well enough when they start the day," Sandon tells WebMD.

If you're feeling sluggish in the early afternoon, ask yourself these questions:

  • Did I eat breakfast?
  • What did I eat for breakfast? (A cup of coffee doesn't count.)
  • What did I eat for lunch? Was it from the vending machine?

Your answers may point to the problem. A cup of coffee on the run for breakfast and a candy bar from the vending machine for lunch may give you the quick jolt of sugar and caffeine you need to get started, but not the long-term fuel you need to keep going, Sandon says. "They will only help for a very short time, and it's not enough to keep the body and brain functioning at their peak."

If you want to beat the midafternoon slump, start first thing in the morning with a good-quality breakfast. (We lecture our kids about it, but how often do we take our own advice?) Most women should be eating about 300 to 400 calories for breakfast, and most men, about 500, says Sandon. Instead of coffee and half a Danish, try these options:

  • A bowl of cereal with skim milk and a glass of juice or piece of fresh fruit
  • Two slices of toast with peanut butter and a banana
  • An English muffin topped with a scrambled egg and a slice of low-fat cheese

"You need carbs to get your day going," says Sandon. "The brain and muscles function best with carbohydrates to fuel them. And we know from other research that adding some protein to the carbs seems to boost concentration levels as well. You feel better, mentally and physically, when you've had a meal that combines carbs and protein."

Sufficiently fueled by breakfast, you might feel like it's OK to skip lunch or "just grab a salad" because you don't have time or are trying to lose weight. "That's a huge mistake people make at lunch -- just having a salad with lettuce and a few vegetables," says Sandon. "They don't have protein with the salad, and then again they find themselves crashing in the midafternoon."

So if you're cruising through the salad bar at lunchtime, top the greens with some diced egg, beans or chickpeas, turkey breast, or cubed chicken to give yourself that protein fix. Or smear some peanut butter on your celery sticks.

And avoid lunches that are heavy in fat; they take longer to digest and sit in your stomach, feeling heavy longer. "That gives you a sense of low energy," Sandon says. "The calories may be there to provide fuel, but the feeling of fullness leads you to feel sluggish."

But what if it's too late to prevent the energy slump? You chugged down a latte for breakfast, ate a skimpy salad for lunch, and now you're drooping over your afternoon reports. What can you do for a quick energy boost? Resist the temptation to hit the vending machines for a Diet Coke and a Snickers. Instead, try Sandon's three-part solution:

  1. 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, taking your mind off what you've been focused on and getting a quick change of scenery (yes, even if it's a stairwell instead of a computer screen) can help to re-energize you. If you don't have a staircase handy, try doing some squats and lunges in your office, or keep a jump rope on the back of your door. "You want anything that gets you breathing a little quicker and moving the muscles," Sandon says.
  2. Get wet. Take a drink of water, that is (don't pour it over yourself). "A big glass of cold water -- bottled, tap, or fountain, it doesn't matter -- can really refresh you," says Sandon. "Adding a slice of lemon or lime can also perk you up."
  3. Get fueled. "If you weren't fortified well at breakfast and lunch, you need to take a moment and have a snack," Sandon says. Good options include fresh fruit, trail mix with nuts, or whole-wheat crackers with string cheese. If you have to go to the vending machine, look for peanut butter crackers, a nice carb-protein combination.

Another option: shed some light on the subject. A study published in 2006 found that brief (about 20 minutes) exposure to a bright white light increased alertness and boosted the brain's responses." Melatonin can't be produced in the presence of bright light," Breus tells WebMD. "If you know you usually feel sleepy around 2:30 or 3 p.m., go out for a walk around 2:15."

What about closing your door and taking a nap? It's tempting. "Catnaps are great -- unless you have insomnia. There's evidence now showing that the last time you were asleep affects how long it takes you to fall asleep at night," says Breus. But if you aren't struggling to sleep at night, a quick catnap can help with that energy crash midafternoon. Just don't sleep too long! The length of the nap will determine how good you feel. About 20 minutes works quite well, but much longer than that and you will wake up feeling terrible."