Hunger is a natural and powerful urge, but our bodies generally know when it’s time to eat and when it’s time to sleep. For most people, hunger and appetite peaks in the evening and is lowest throughout the night and first thing in the morning.
If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night or in the morning with gnawing hunger pangs, it’s likely that your body isn’t getting what it needs.
There are several reasons you might face hunger at night, but you can address most of them with minor changes to your diet or schedule. Read on to learn why you might be waking up hungry and what you can do to fix it.
Your body is still burning calories while you sleep, but unless you have a medical condition requiring treatment, your stomach shouldn’t be rumbling at night.
There are many reasons why you could be waking up ravenous at night or in the morning. Most often, it has to do with lifestyle, but medications and other conditions could also be the culprit.
Overeating before bed
If you’re the type of person to reach for pizza and other fast foods an hour or two before you hit the sack, this could be the reason you’re waking up hungry.
Consuming foods – especially those high in starch and sugar – right before bed causes a spike in blood sugar. Your pancreas then releases a hormone called insulin, which tells your cells to absorb blood sugar. This causes blood sugar levels to drop, leading to hunger.
On top of that, studies show that eating at night is generally less satiating compared with eating in the morning.
Scientists recommend only consuming a small, nutrient-dense snack of fewer than 200 calories right before bedtime. For example, a protein-rich beverage before bed has been shown to both satisfy your hunger and improve morning metabolism.
Lack of sleep
Not getting enough sleep is associated with poor blood sugar control. Even just a few sleepless nights can affect your blood sugar levels. Lack of sleep has been linked to higher levels of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for producing hunger. Aim for six to eight hours of sleep a night to prevent these issues.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
PMS is a condition that can affect physical health and behavior, usually right before your period starts. It’s believed to be caused by changes in hormone levels.
Food cravings, especially for sugary snacks, is a common symptom, along with:
- changes in sleep
If you’re noticing a change in appetite or waking up hungry at night right before your period, PMS could be to blame.
Certain medications are known to increase your appetite, which can make you wake up with a rumbling stomach. These include:
- some antidepressants
- migraine medications
- some diabetes medications, such as insulin
- antiseizure drugs
Thirst is often mistaken as hunger. Dehydration makes you lethargic, which can make you think you’re hungry.
If you’re waking up with hunger pangs and cravings, try drinking a large glass of water and wait a few minutes to see if the craving goes away. Make sure you’re staying hydrated throughout the day.
Stress is notorious for causing food cravings. As stress levels go up, your body releases certain hormones, like cortisol. Stress engages your flight-or-fight response, causing sugar to release into your bloodstream for quick energy.
Yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises are great ways to reduce stress and blood sugar spikes following a meal.
Exercise helps control blood sugar spikes. Blood sugar levels drop as your muscles absorb sugar from the blood. But if you exercise intensely at night, you might find that your blood sugar levels drop too low to keep your body satiated throughout the night.
Make sure you’re getting enough to eat at dinner or consider having a high-protein snack after a strenuous workout. If you usually exercise at night and go to bed late, you might want to move your normal dinnertime closer — but not too close — to your bedtime.
It’s also a good idea to drink more water after a workout to avoid dehydration.
Night eating syndrome (NES)
NES is an eating disorder that causes lack of appetite in the morning, urges to eat at night, and difficulty sleeping. Not much is known about what causes night eating syndrome, but scientists speculate that it has something to do with lower melatonin levels at night.
People with this condition also have lower leptin, which is your body’s natural appetite suppressant, and other issues with the body’s stress response system.
NES isn’t always recognized by doctors and there aren’t any specific treatment options. Antidepressants may help improve the condition.
Many women find that their appetite is increased during pregnancy. Waking up hungry likely isn’t a cause for concern, but you’ll need to make sure any late-night eating isn’t making you gain too much weight.
Eat a healthy dinner and don’t go to bed hungry. A high-protein snack or a warm glass of milk can keep your blood sugar levels steady through the night.
Hunger at night while pregnant may be symptom of gestational diabetes, which is blood sugar elevation during pregnancy. All women are tested for this condition between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy and it usually resolves after the baby is born.
Other health conditions
Some health conditions can have a profound effect on your appetite, especially if they involve your metabolism. Obesity, diabetes, and hyperthyroidism are known to cause problems with appetite control.
Diabetes causes trouble regulating blood sugar levels. In type 2 diabetes, for example, cells don’t respond to insulin and sugar circulates in the blood. The result is that your body never gets the energy it needs, so you continue to feel hungry.
Other symptoms of diabetes include:
- excessive thirst
- slow-healing sores
- blurry vision
- excessive need to urinate
Being overweight or obese can also make it more difficult for your body to use insulin and control blood sugar levels.
Increased appetite is also one of the most common symptoms of hyperthyroidism, which occurs when your thyroid makes too much of the hormones tetraiodothyronine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).
A balanced diet can improve your overall health and energy levels, and also keep you satiated throughout the night. This means eating more fruits and vegetables and less sugar, salt, caffeine, and alcohol.
Try not to consume a large meal right before bed. Eating a small snack is a great idea if it’s been a while since dinner, but you’ll need to avoid too much sugar and starch. The goal is to keep your blood sugar levels as stable as possible.
Good options for a late-night snack include:
- whole grain cereal with low‐fat milk
- plain Greek yogurt with fruit
- a handful of nuts
- whole wheat pita with hummus
- rice cakes with natural peanut butter
- apples with almond butter
- a low-sugar protein drink
- hard-boiled eggs
If you find yourself always hungry before bedtime, consider moving your dinnertime up an hour or two.
If you’re overweight or obese, weight loss has also been shown to improve blood sugar control and regulate your appetite.
See a doctor if these lifestyle changes don’t help, or you’re having other symptoms. If your doctor gives you a diagnosis of an underlying medical condition, such as diabetes, you’ll likely be put on a treatment plan to help manage the condition.
If you think your hunger is a result of medication, don’t stop taking it without speaking to your doctor first. They may recommend a different medication or adjust your dosage.
Simple dietary changes, such as avoiding starch and sugar before bed, reducing stress, getting adequate sleep, and staying hydrated can help you control your blood sugar and regulate your appetite.
If you’re overweight or notice symptoms of other health conditions, see your doctor.