Have you ever experienced a seemingly uncontrollable hunger far past dinner time? I am sure many people reading this have experienced it in varying degrees. This type of intense hunger late at night or even past midnight is often called late night hunger. Resisting the temptation to eat can be painful and difficult while succumbing usually has various health consequences.
What Causes It?
There are many possible theories and factors that seek to explain these late night hunger attacks. One way to look at late night hunger is through the evolutionary perspective. A study published in the journal Obesity revealed that the body’s circadian system, the internal biological clock, increases hunger and cravings, especially for sweet, starchy, and salty food, in the evening regardless of external factors. Some researchers believe that his inherent craving during these hours can be explained by the fact that increased appetite during the night allowed more efficient energy storage for our ancestors, who were more active and faced more difficulties in obtaining food. As a result, people came to have internal clocks with greater hunger in later times by natural selection.
On the other hand, some explanations point to lifestyle and habits as culprits to late night hunger rather than for purely genetic reasons. For example, lack of sleep can disrupt the control of glucose level in the blood, which can lead to sudden hunger at random times. Sleep deprivation is also linked to higher levels of the hormone ghrelin, which produces hunger. Health experts recommend 6 to 8 hours of sleep to prevent this. Similarly, there are many other factors, such as stress, pregnancy, menstruation, medications, and caffeine, in which hormonal changes can cause intense cravings in the night.
Another factor is the control of blood glucose level throughout the day. For example, excessive physical exertion 1 or 2 hours before sleep can cause blood sugar level to drop very low, leading to hunger. In a similar line of reasoning, blood glucose level may just be too low simply because of not eating enough during the day, which might happen often for dieters. Other reasons can be due to habit. Regularly eating late can alter the pattern of glucose levels at time intervals, causing repeated hunger at that particular time.
What are the Consequences?
Quite obviously, late night hunger most often leads to eating late at night. Kelly Allison of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Center for Weight and Eating Disorders explains that studies reveal calories taken up late at night are more likely to be stored as fat than burned as energy. In addition, studies on animals reveal food is processed differently during different times. Both point to the fact that eating late at night prompts gaining weight in an unhealthy way.
Another consequence is on sleep as eating late can cause later sleeping times. Eating late has been linked to insomnia, and late night snackers usually wake up more often during sleep. Gastrointestinal issues, such as acid reflux, can also occur due to poor and slower digestion during sleep if food is eaten too close to the sleeping time. Irregular eating time has been linked to higher blood pressure and lower mental health as well.
What Should You Do?
So what should you do to prevent and remediate late night hunger attacks? One way to prevent them is by making lifestyle changes, such as sleeping early, having a regular eating schedule, and exercising earlier in the day. You might also want to eat larger meals earlier in the day. Natural supplements, such as Vitamin D and Omega-3, can also help balance glucose levels and prevent cravings. If you do get to face late night hunger, try drinking water as, sometimes, people confuse thirst for hunger. If you are still left with insatiable hunger, opt high-fiber, high-protein foods that are filling but easy to digest. The later the time, the healthier the food you are eating should be. Avoid sugar and caffeine that can lead to wakefulness at the wrong time and spicy food that can cause heartburn and indigestion. Examples are berries, yogurt, nuts and eggs. The portion should also be not too big — under 200 calories — because eating too much may make you feel too full and awake for sleep and digestive system work overtime.