It's happened to all of us: We find ourselves standing in the kitchen late at night with the refrigerator light cast on our faces. We peer inside, trying to figure out what we want. But do we really want food? Or are we looking for the answer to another question other than "what is there to eat?" If you've ever struggled with night eating, don't blame yourself for a lack of willpower: The reasons might be related to your biology.
First, we want to acknowledge that for some, eating late into the night to the point that it disrupts your sleep could be another, more serious health concern to discuss with your primary care provider.
If you are otherwise struggling with eating later at night, let's dive into what could be causing late-night snacking. Some of the key causes:
Boredom: Many people eat mindlessly, meaning they are not genuinely tuning into hunger signals but instead end up eating because they are bored. Food provides a form of stimulation. According to the Cleveland Clinic, physical and emotional hunger are quite different.
Emotional or mental health needs: Similar to boredom, the impulse to eat could be the result of an emotional or mental health trigger, such as anxiety or stress. People end up managing their moods via hunger rather than addressing the root cause of their emotions. The fact that stress or anxiety could appear to be a craving might be due to hormones or unresolved emotional or cognitive struggles.
Too little food during the day: Did you wait to eat, and now you're not just hungry, but hangry? Keeping yourself nourished throughout the day will help prevent over-eating at night. Eating every four to five hours helps you maintain an optimal blood sugar balance, so you stay satisfied instead of overeating late at night.
Sleep deprivation: Perhaps given less credit than other factors, sleep deprivation fatigues the brain, which in turn impacts how the body perceives hunger signals from a lack of sleep. When you're sleep-deprived, your body craves quick energy in the form of fast carbs and empty calories for an immediate energy boost. So, in addition to having a general lack of energy from sleep deprivation, you're also more apt to overeat if you do not get adequate sleep.
Medical issues: When was the last time you had your blood levels checked? The body has multiple systems that coordinate to signal your need and desire for food. If one of those systems is running sub-optimally, you could end up in an unhelpful eating pattern. This could negatively impact your overall health and well-being, not to mention the number on the scale. An overactive thyroid, for example, can cause intense hunger due to the rate at which the body is burning calories.
Hormones: The messengers that deliver signals to multiple systems in the body, hormones contribute to how balanced you feel when it comes to food and hunger signals. While many different hormones contribute to weight and appetite, the top three to be aware of include insulin, ghrelin, and leptin. Simply, insulin instructs the body to store glucose. When the body has become inundated from sugar (glucose), the signal from insulin to store glucose becomes less effective. It can lead to overeating certain foods to achieve the blood sugar regulation that insulin can no longer provide. The hormone leptin tells the body that you are full. If it becomes downregulated, you may have a tendency to overeat because your brain is not getting the signal of fullness. Ghrelin is responsible for triggering hunger pains and physiological hunger. A lack of sleep can impact how ghrelin is regulated and cause increased appetite.
Practice Mindfulness. Being aware of your emotional, mental, and physical needs is a process that you can learn and one that will help you discern true hunger from another need. Do you need mental stimulation? Perhaps more social connection? Is the food serving as a replacement for something else that you might need? The practice of pausing before eating can go a long way in discerning what need is truly present at each moment.
Eat regularly and consistently. Eating at regular intervals to maintain blood sugar balance will help your body know when to expect food. This will also help you discern true hunger from other needs. Additionally, you help sustain your body's energy by having nutrient-dense meals at consistent times. This can help regulate ghrelin and leptin.
Get enough ZZZs. Sleep allows for all the physiological systems in your body to reset and recalibrate. Without adequate sleep, the body cannot function efficiently, which may stimulate hunger as the body signals for a quick boost in energy. This is why we may feel more hungry or eat more after a poor night's sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, try implementing a sleep hygiene practice every night to prepare your body and mind for rest. Read our article on building a sleep routine for tips.
Manage stress. Does your mind race when you go to bed at night? Learning some tools to manage stress can help you maintain a healthy body weight and care for yourself so that food is not a source of relief.
Be active. Regular, daily movement is key to balancing hormones and improving hunger signals in the body. Exercise can also be an excellent way to relieve stress, connect with others and improve body composition.
Monitor your hormones. In addition to what we discussed, insulin, ghrelin, and leptin, high cortisol levels (our main stress hormone), changes in thyroid function, or changes in sex hormones can impact appetite and energy. If you think anything is abnormal, walk with your primary care provider.