Why Do I Keep Waking Up in the Middle of the Night Hungry?

Woman with insomnia
Waking up with hunger pangs might suggest a medical condition. (Image: KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock/Getty Images)

If you often wake in the middle of the night feeling very hungry, you might need to change your daytime eating patterns. In rare cases, you might have a medical condition known as night eating syndrome, but for most people, waking up hungry during the night means you’re not eating well during the day.

Eating Habits

Going to bed on an empty stomach leads to discomfort and possibly waking during the night. Your digestive system slows while you sleep, but the gurgling and hunger pangs of a very empty stomach can disrupt your rest. However, eating a large meal just before bedtime can also cause discomfort. Experts at the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School suggest eating a small bedtime snack that won't give you indigestion or otherwise disturb your sleep. A 200-calorie snack that includes complex carbohydrates and protein is ideal: try whole-grain cereal with soymilk, whole-wheat bread with peanut butter, or fruit and cheese. In general, aim to eat moderate, well-balanced meals and snacks throughout the day. Don’t let yourself get famished before eating, and stop when you feel satisfied but not stuffed.

Night Eating Syndrome

People affected by night eating syndrome, or NES, wake up with powerful hunger pangs. They consume at least 25 percent of their daily calories after finishing dinner or awake and eat in the middle of the night at least three times a week. The syndrome is connected with mood disorders, eating disorders and disrupted sleep patterns. If you have NES, you may eat little during the day or skip meals regularly. You might feel depressed, lethargic, anxious or stressed out. In some cases, nocturnal eating syndrome involves behavior similar to sleepwalking, with people unaware of their binges until someone tells them.

Sleeping Habits

Your sleep habits influence the quality of your nighttime rest. Staying up late or going to bed too early go against your body's natural sleep signals. For example, if you go to bed at 8 p.m. every night but often wake at midnight for a snack, try eating your dinner a little later and going to bed at 9:30 or 10 p.m. Keeping to a regular sleep schedule also helps your body develop a sleep rhythm. Erratic sleep timings or going to bed with loud music on or the TV blaring can lead to general insomnia or waking with hunger.

Considerations

Consuming high-caffeine substances such as chocolate or coffee just before bed often leads to interrupted sleep and increases your chances of night snacking. Not only is caffeine a central nervous system stimulant, but also it speeds digestion, which can lead to an empty stomach in the middle of the night. Avoid caffeine after 4 p.m. or around six hours before sleep. For the same reason, avoid nicotine, another powerful CNS and digestive stimulant.

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