What Causes Midnight Hunger?

Man Taking Food From Fridge
Man reaching into a fridge at night. (Image: AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images)

Getting a good night's sleep is essential for your mood and overall health. Waking up hungry from time to time isn't something you necessarily need to worry about, but a growling stomach every night is something you should examine more closely. Your body is designed to sleep all night without needing sustenance, and making a few changes to your daily routine will help you get that good restorative sleep you need without a middle-of-the-night snack.

Lack of Food During the Day

If you don't eat enough during the day, or if you eat at the wrong times, you might not have enough calories to sustain your body while you sleep. For example, if you eat dinner early, you're more likely to wake up hungry before breakfast, according to Joy Bauer, a registered dietitian, writing for NBC Today. Eating dinner later can help you make it all night without a growling stomach. Including fiber in your evening meal or nighttime snacks can also help, Bauer notes. Fiber fills your stomach and digests more slowly, so you feel full longer.

Changes in Blood Sugar

Changes in blood sugar can cause you to wake up hungry in the night. This can occur if you have a poor diet. For example, eating an evening meal that contains a large amount of refined carbohydrates, such as those in white pasta, causes a quick spike in blood sugar. This is followed by a drop in blood sugar, which can leave you feeling hungry. The opposite is true if your dinner includes fruits, vegetables, protein and fiber, which promote a more steady blood sugar level, reducing the risk of feeling hungry before breakfast. Eating breakfast within 90 minutes of getting up and eating every five hours throughout the day can also help eliminate the blood sugar fluctuations.

Hormonal Changes

Hormones in your body control hunger, Bauer notes. Ghrelin is a hormone that makes you want to eat, and leptin helps you limit your food intake. If your ghrelin and leptin levels become unbalanced, you may feel hungry when you would normally be satiated. Stress, for example, can cause these hormonal unbalances. The hormonal fluctuations of a woman's menstrual cycle can also cause hormonal changes that contribute to the desire to eat late at night.

Environment and Sensory Factors

Your lifestyle habits might lead to midnight hunger. For example, if you stay up until midnight, but dinner was five or six hours ago, you might feel like snacking because it's been so long since your last meal. If you watch television while staying up late, seeing commercials for food can make you feel hungry, Bauer reports. Reflecting on the tough day you had might make you feel hungry for a treat to reward yourself for getting through those challenges.

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