If you shouldn't eat at night, why is there a light in the fridge? It's a joke we may smile at, but losing sleep because you're craving food isn't so funny for those afflicted. Waking up in the middle of the night hungry can quickly take its toll on your wellbeing, so you need a plan to deal with it.
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Here's why you might experience hunger pangs at night, what to do about them and how to prevent them.
Read more: How Bad Is It Really to Eat Carbs Before Bed?
What Causes Nighttime Hunger?
"Waking in the night and experiencing hunger may be caused by alterations in a person's circadian rhythm," says St. Louis, Missouri-based Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, RD, registered dietitian, assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Under normal circumstances, circadian rhythms prompt hunger in the evening so that we eat enough to sustain an overnight fast, according to the findings of March 2013 research in Obesity.
You might sometimes wake up in the middle of the night feeling hungry, Linsenmeyer says, if you are:
- Not eating enough during daytime hours
- Under stress
Your circadian rhythm — governed by a 24-hour light-dark cycle — can also be disrupted if you travel, work late nights or stare at the blue light of your computer too much, according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
Solutions for Nighttime Hunger
To avoid a rumbling stomach and help prevent nighttime eating, Linsenmeyer says to make sure you eat enough healthy meals throughout the day.
"It's also a good idea to avoid caffeine sources such as coffee, tea and chocolate later in the day, and to exercise earlier in the day to promote quality sleep at night," she says.
And when it comes to your diet, according to an April 2020 review in Nutrients, higher-carb diets, as well as foods with tryptophan, melatonin and phytonutrients (think: cherries), are associated with better quality shut-eye. So, you might want to shift away from keto or similar low-carb diets if you are struggling with sleep issues.
But if you still wake up feeling hungry, Linsenmeyer says the action you take depends on the severity of your symptoms.
"If the experience is infrequent and not causing you significant distress, it can be managed by having a small, nutrient-dense snack and returning to sleep," she says.
More specifically, she says, to help you feel full, the snack should provide:
- Healthy fats
Good examples she suggests include:
- Whole-grain toast spread with peanut butter
- A small bowl of unsweetened nutty muesli with 2 percent milk
- Slices of whole-grain pita dipped into hummus
When to Get Help
"If [waking up hungry] occurs more frequently — twice a week or more — and is causing distress, you should consult with your doctor," Linsenmeyer says.
"A severe form of this experience is referred to as night eating syndrome," she says, "which is characterized by a pattern of consuming a significant portion of one's overall food intake at night, lack of appetite in the morning and the feeling of needing to eat before returning to sleep, among other traits."
And if you do need to seek help, you should not be embarrassed or worried, as night eating syndrome is a recognized condition, classified as an "other specified feeding or eating disorder," according to the National Eating Disorders Association. These types eating behaviors don't meet the full criteria for an eating disorder (such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia), but can still cause significant upset and anguish.
Also, if you have type 1 diabetes, there may be a connection between the condition and waking up hungry. "Patients with type 1 diabetes may experience low blood sugar during the nighttime," Linsenmeyer says.
If this applies to you, "a snack after dinner and before sleep can help to prevent this, but the exact timing of food intake, insulin and other medications should be planned in consultation with a physician and registered dietitian," she says.
Is This an Emergency?
- Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, RD, LD, assistant professor of nutrition, Saint Louis University; spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Saint Louis, Missouri
- Obesity: “The Internal Circadian Clock Increases Hunger and Appetite in the Evening Independent of Food Intake and Other Behaviors”
- National Institute of General Medical Sciences: “Circadian Rhythms”
- Nutrients: “Effects of Diet on Sleep: A Narrative Review”
- National Eating Disorders Association: “Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder”