That being said, if your body does inconveniently nudge you to wake up or you’re interrupted over several nights due to hunger, it's certainly nothing to (ahem) lose sleep over. According to dietitians, this might just be your body's way to telling you that you might want to start introducing a snack or small meal into your before-bed routine. But to really get to the bottom of preventable things that could be happening throughout the day—from not eating enough protein to facing heightened levels of stress—that may be causing you to wake up ravenous, we tapped a few RDs for explanations and solutions. Read on to learn why you might wake up hungry in the middle of the night, and how to solve it.
What your body is trying to tell you when you wake up hungry, according to dietitians
1. You might need to eat more consistently throughout the day (with an emphasis on complex carbs)
If you’re waking up feeling hungry, Katherine Metzelaar, RDN, owner of Bravespace Nutrition, says that it's likely because you didn’t eat enough food throughout the day. "Being restrictive or having restrictive eating habits—like forgetting to feed our bodies or following a strict food schedule, like not eating after a certain time of day—throws us off," she says.
Intuitive eating is one way around this: Feed your body when it wants to be fed. "That might mean not going more than a couple of hours, four to five max, without food,” says Metzelaar. Feel out what habits make you feel most energized and satisfied. "Getting plenty of proteins, healthy fats, and especially complex carbs throughout the day is equally important. A mix of vegetables, whole grains, and starches that are all carbs is a great way to keep energy levels up," she adds.
Learn more about intuitive eating from a dietitian by watching this video:
Metzelaar says that your body's ghrelin levels, a hormone that signals that you're hungry, tend to drop when you go to sleep. “This is because your body wants to signal that there is no need for food through the night so that you're able to get the highest-quality rest, which means without interruptions. It does this by increasing leptin levels—your fullness hormone—as you sleep," Metzelaar says. “However, when someone isn't fed enough throughout the day or has last eaten five hours before bed, they are likely going to need food again. Not eating enough can naturally cause the continuous release of ghrelin because the body doesn't have enough sustainable energy met from food, which can wake us up. That’s why it’s important to eat enough during the day to not throw off hunger hormones that surge while sleeping.”
2. You could be experiencing low blood sugar
“Additionally, when someone isn't eating enough, it can throw off their glucose levels, which can make sleeping through a whole night without getting hungry virtually impossible. This is because their glucose—aka blood sugar—has dropped too low, and the body wakes up because of this,” says Metzelaar. This is far more serious (and a harsh reality) for those who have diabetes, but may impact some folks without the condition as well.
Having a pre-bedtime snack can prevent this, Metzelaar says, such as a well-balanced bedtime snack with some protein, carbs, and fat. Think: almond butter and banana on whole wheat toast, yogurt or cottage cheese with berries, or hummus on crackers. Metzelaar again affirms the importance of getting a sufficient amount of food throughout the day to keep blood sugar levels stabilized.
3. You're working out—likely in the evening—without sufficiently refueling afterwards
“A strenuous workout, particularly one done in the evening, can significantly tap into fuel reserves," says Michelle Ricker, RDN. "If you don’t adequately refuel after a workout—at any time, but especially those that exercise at night—you could find that hunger wakes you up later while you're sleeping.”
The best bet is to focus on eating more after you finish your workout, and Ricker highlights both carbs and protein as key nutrients to include in your post-workout snack. “Carbs help with restoring glycogen energy storage, and if that drops too low, it can signal hunger to your body. Protein not only helps with muscle recovery, but with feeling more satiated,” Ricker says. Research also shows that foods with tryptophan, melatonin, and phytonutrients are linked to better snooze quality.
Regardless of physical activity, Ricker adds that it's important to make sure that your evening meal has both complex carbs (think beans, veggies, and whole grains) and protein no matter what. "A very high carb meal may help to induce sleep, but the protein is important to make that meal more filling over a longer period,” she says. Ricker also recommends limiting foods that can tamper with sleep—particularly anything with caffeine or a lot of added sugar—in the evening.
4. Stress is taking a toll (and throwing your gut microbiome out of balance)
“Melatonin, a hormone that your body produces naturally to manage your sleep-wake cycle, is triggered by the onset of darkness and is usually secreted by your brain around bedtime to help you go to sleep," explains Ricker. "If your natural levels of melatonin are decreased—for instance, those who work night shifts, or folks who struggle with sleep due to stress or jetlag—you may have trouble either falling or staying asleep.”
When sleep deprived, Ricker says we also tend to have elevated ghrelin levels and even more stress, which can throw your gut microbiome out of balance. “Keep stress down to avoid destroying your good gut bacteria. This can be done by adding fermented foods, increasing your fiber intake, and reducing your consumption of sugar, processed foods, and fried foods, especially before bed,” Ricker says. Instead, try reaching for this melatonin smoothie.
5. You may need more vitamin D
Vitamin D comes naturally from sunlight and foods. And if you’re not getting enough, your circadian rhythm (aka sleep patterns) can be thrown off. "Vitamin D also helps regulate leptin levels, which can impact your appetite," says Ricker. “To up your vitamin D intake, try eating more of the primary food sources, like seafood, mushrooms, and fortified dairy products.”
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