How to keep the night hunger at bay?
June 9, 2023 4:59 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have experience with Night Eating Syndrome (NES)? This is not snacking after dinner, rather waking from sleep with a strong urge to eat in order to fall back asleep.

This started for me during the pandemic and I've only recently realised it could be pathological as opposed to just me being 'too hungry'. I don't deny myself food during the day but I also eat at odd times, since I have ADHD and don't register hunger very well.

Every night I eat a decent dinner and have dessert if I feel like it, which is about half the time. Then I do an elaborate dental routine with flossing, mouthwash etc. to discourage myself from eating later and go to bed. I toss and turn and feel like I'm almost falling asleep but my body feels uncomfortable, like I'm itching on the inside. Then it's like I lose all sense of reason and dash to the kitchen and eat whatever is there.

I have tried to not keep snacks in the house but then I will literally eat bread and butter instead. I try to eat a small amount but sometimes I have to go back for more until my body feels calm and I can finally get to sleep. If I wake again in the night needing to pee, I will feel the urge to eat again but most of the time I can resist it then. The next day I am not hungry until lunchtime.

I started having difficulty falling asleep due to physical pain from previous injuries, plus Restless Leg Syndrome. I've been working on that with the help of a physio and the pain is a lot better, but the sleep issues are still there.

I have read anecdotally online that ADHD medication can help but I have only just been diagnosed and I still have several months' wait before I can begin medication titration with the NHS. I'm looking for strategies to cope in the meantime. I am exercising a lot more, eating better during the day, I recently quit drinking, am currently changing my job role to something less stressful, getting support with my mental health and learning a lot about myself. It feels like I'm doing All the Things but I still can't do the One Thing that has haunted me my entire life, which is losing weight. Instead I'm gaining it, which is making me sad and anxious despite my desire to love myself and accept myself more.

Does anyone have any strategies for overcoming the night eating? Or at least mitigating the circumstances until I can get access to medication? Thanks so much.
posted by guessthis to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
How long is it between dinner and going to sleep?
If there's quite a big gap, then maybe having something like a banana would be worth a try.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 5:30 AM on June 9, 2023

Is it possible you are simply not eating enough during the day?

I used to have a similar problem while I was taking ADHD medication that suppressed my appetite. I was eating fairly little during the day, not because I was intentionally denying myself food, but because a few snacks around each mealtime were enough to satisfy my hunger cravings, and I felt fine after. But then, late at night after the meds started to wear off, I would get intensely hungry and eat big bowls of ice cream, or cereal, chips, or bread and butter. I think this was my body desperately seeking the calories that it wasn't getting during the day.

I have since lowered my dosage of the medication, and started making a conscious effort to eat 3 normal-sized meals' worth of food per day, and the problem has mostly gone away. (My internal narrative sounds something like "yes, I know you're not very hungry, but all you've eaten today is two bananas and half a sandwich -- you need a big hearty dinner!") I still snack in the evenings but it's not the uncontrollable hunger it was before.

(I'm also telling this partly as a cautionary tale -- it's possible that ADHD medication may help in your case, but it also may make the problem worse, so be aware of that if/when you pursue medication.)

If you have access to a good dietitian, they may be able to help you determine how many calories your body needs per day, and what that looks like in practice in terms of meals and snacks, so you can see whether you're currently close to that amount or not.

There is also a habituation element here -- you train your body to be hungry at certain times by eating at those times. In a way it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. If you never eat in the morning, you will not be hungry in the morning because your body doesn't expect food; if you frequently eat late at night, you'll be hungry late at night because your body knows that's when it will get much of its nourishment for the day. You can use this to your advantage -- even a few small bites of food in the morning can start shifting your hunger patterns, working up to a full breakfast. (or at least, I've found this to be the case for myself -- every body is different.)
posted by mekily at 5:31 AM on June 9, 2023 [2 favorites]

Is it possible you are simply not eating enough during the day?

I'm wondering the same thing. If I eat a small dinner, or if I eat dinner but then stay up really late, I pretty much have to have a snack before bed, otherwise I lay there and feel hungry and twitchy.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:57 AM on June 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

If there is any chance you are using weed, try taking a break and see if that helps.
posted by InkaLomax at 6:37 AM on June 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think the first the I would try is having scheduled mealtimes and snacks. Plan out the meals and prep as much as you can so you don't have to think about it or do too much cooking during the day. Have a small snack with carbs and protein about an hour before you plan to be asleep. I've heard pickles are good to eat before bed also, something about the salt content helps regulate your electrolytes overnight so you don't wake up hungry.

I'd also suggest taking 300 to 400 mg of magnesium glycinate before bed to help with the restless leg syndrome and to help you fall asleep.
posted by ananci at 6:39 AM on June 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far! I just wanted to mention that I've always been overweight but have hovered around a 'set point' most of my life. Since the night eating started, I've steadily gained and am now borderline obese. So I don't think eating too little during the day is the problem. But I know I struggle to get enough protein, so maybe that's an issue here? Okay, back to threadsitting.
posted by guessthis at 6:52 AM on June 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I quit smoking and also when I did intermittent fasting, I discovered that hunger/smoke pangs only last about 5 minutes, and if you can make those five minutes you are in the clear for a while. To do that I simply sucked on a strongly flavoured lozenge like Fishermans Friend and that helped me to get me over those five minutes.
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon at 7:39 AM on June 9, 2023 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Have you ever been tested for hypoglycemia or blood sugar issues? Does the hunger also include dizziness, blood pressure changes or nausea? Consider that this could be an age-related change and/or a side effect of a medication you are taking

I am insulin resistant and I take something that causes me to wake up starving, sometimes so much so that I wake up nauseous. I will often drink a protein shake before bed and also supplement with a sublingual B12 so I don't wake up miserable.
posted by answergrape at 7:52 AM on June 9, 2023 [4 favorites]

Completely anecdotal but I occasionally have a similar problem and have found eating most of my protein at the end of the day and not too many carbs helps greatly -- to the extent that I can not eat breakfast till 9ish, whereas if I eat a big load of pasta pesto at the end of the day I wake up ravenous.
posted by tomp at 8:08 AM on June 9, 2023

What time do you have dinner? I used to have this problem, brought it up to my physician and she determined that I was eating too late (around 8p with a bedtime of 10p), which seems counterintuitive, but apparently there was something about the digestive process waking me up and making me feel like I was hungry. I started eating dinner earlier and the problem stopped.
posted by Jess the Mess at 8:21 AM on June 9, 2023

This happens to me a lot as well, and a thing that works for me (ymmv) is a glass of whole fat milk, then toothbrushing routine, then a glass of water. Usually when I wake up to pee, I’m only thirsty, not hungry, so more water and back to sleep.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:30 AM on June 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Like someone else mentioned, I would look out for your blood sugar and make sure you are eating a meal with adequate fat, fiber, and protein at the end of the day, without super sugary desserts (and eat desserts right after dinner, not later). I used to be hungry so often, like when waking up at night, but now that I've adjusted the way I eat I never experience those intense pangs of hunger.

I would experiment and keep a journal to see if what and when you eat makes a difference.
posted by beyond_pink at 10:00 AM on June 9, 2023 [3 favorites]

Oh dogs, I so feel you! I didn't realize there was a name for this.

Right now I do this me nearly every damn night. I hate it. I can absolutely sit up and think how I want to lose weight so badly, how all it takes is a small bit of control, how I can simply distract my self by reading my tablet and falling asleep again. And then I walk out to the kitchen. If I'm lucky, and there are grapes, sometimes that is enough. If there's swiss cheese, peanuts, or cookies, or dogs forbid , ice cream, sometimes that's what it takes. I can literally lay there in a froth trying to resist, and I won't go back to sleep until I eat.

Evenings in general are bad for me, but it usually doesn't matter if I have snacks or not whether I wake up or want to eat in the middle of the night.

I don't have ADHD, sometimes am hurting or achey, usually sleep poorly. I need to start using my CPAP machine according to pulmonary and cardiology docs. Have tons of inflammation and other health issues that are slowly being resolved, I hope.

Not diabetic or have blood sugar issues. Not a smoker or have a past history, no weed. Get plenty of calories, usually too many. It can be better if exercise or work hard, but sometimes I can't sleep because I'm too tired or wound up. I do have a rx for cyclobenzipren, which dopes me up to sleep, but it makes me hungover and depressed in the morning.

I'm in a horrible stressful relationship that I can see no way out of because of financial issues. I'm pretty sure I overeat sweets as a reaction to that.

I can skip breakfast without a problem, but very seldom do. (Inculated that it's the important meal of the day and generally more alert etc.) Able to skip lunch if busy, but generally don't. Always ready for the evening meal, but it's not usually at a specific time. Doesn't seem to make any difference in time of the evening meal.

If you find something that helps, please, please post your solution.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:14 AM on June 9, 2023

As others have suggested, please monitor your Glucose if you aren't already doing it. Plus to control my insulin resistance I was told to intentionally eat protein with all my meals. I have started using eggs and non-fat plain Greek Yoghurt from Aldi as my protein supplement with all my meals. See if you can include this as a part of your last meal of the day at the end of the meal.

I use a bespoke retainer because I grind my teeth during sleep. One of the unexpected consequences is that when I wear it, my hunger pangs seem to vanish for some reason. So look into getting one.

Here's a website where you can order one if you are so inclined.
posted by indianbadger1 at 11:45 AM on June 9, 2023

I’ve suffered for decades with similar symptoms. Tried so many medications (benzodiazepines, gabapentin, levodopa, ambien, etc) to address this symptom cluster. Recently I found that CBN (a cannabis product) shuts all of this down, allowing me to sleep.

Notably, I followed a similar weight history to yours. I’m sleeping now without waking and have lost some weight to boot. Good luck!
posted by u2604ab at 12:02 PM on June 9, 2023

Restless leg syndrome can be caused by iron deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency screws with glucose metabolism, too, so the overnight hunger may be from glucose spikes and plummets. If your RLS isn't solely from an iron deficiency, then dopamine-agonist ADHD meds could offer some relief in that area as well.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:44 PM on June 9, 2023

Best answer: I was gonna say PROTEIN. Eat a hard boiled egg or 2 before your dental routine!
posted by tristeza at 2:54 PM on June 9, 2023

I was a 3am eater. Actually did my best eating between 9pm and midnight, then a "snack" before turning in late. I would wake up and eat two slices of bread. You should have seen the combinations of food I was "forced" to come up with in the middle of the night..

I was visiting my gf family that did not have anything eatable except what was the next meal. It forced me to eat dinner at 7pm and then, nothing. The first few days sucked. I flipped and flopped in bed for a long time before falling asleep. But, by the 3rd day, I was fine. I actually felt better.

I have always been of the opinion that a diet is won at the grocery store, not at the frig or cupboard. Too much discipline needed at home. Now, when I am at the store, when I reach for the bag of chips or any food vice, and ask myself why and when. I usually put it back. You can address it through medication, therapy, etc but the fastest way, and maybe the most painful psychologically and physically is through not having access.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:23 PM on June 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

Planning meals and eating before you’re too hungry can help you choose healthy foods and eat at a pace that lets you notice when you’re getting full, vs. inhaling anything easy because you’re so hungry. +1 set alarms to eat. An ADHDer I know drinks slim fast on a schedule when food is hard. A doctor visit to rule out other causes is a good idea, too.
posted by momus_window at 6:12 PM on June 9, 2023

Best answer: I have always found it strange that sucking on an original Ricola Natural Herb Cough Drop can stop me from eating when I shouldn't be eating. It probably works in the same way Fisherman's Friend works for SweetLiesofBokonon. I would also say that it is strongly flavored.It's worth a try.
posted by EasternDistrict at 8:13 PM on June 9, 2023

Best answer: >make sure you are eating a meal with adequate fat, fiber, and protein at the end of the day, without super sugary desserts (and eat desserts right after dinner, not later).

Please please do this it will help so much. Shoot for 25-30 grams of fiber, definitely lots of protein, healthier fats, fewer carbs without fibre.

I’ve acquired a night snacking problem too. Having a planned evening snack - usually either cottage cheese or oatmeal (protein! Or fiber!) - helps a lot. If I’m up and really just want to munch on something, I try to make myself go for an orange or grapes, which are kept in a highly visible place in the fridge.

I’m someone who just has to ban chips or similar. If they’re in the place it’s just game over.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:17 PM on June 9, 2023

I’m in recovery from binge eating syndrome. Have not binged since late December. Please DM me if you’d like.
posted by rabia.elizabeth at 2:00 AM on June 10, 2023

and eat desserts right after dinner, not later

I eat any dessert before dinner, treat it like a sweet entree, savour the heavier savoury stuff and we're done. I just like it that way but it also stops dessert and eating generally elongating.
posted by deadwax at 5:09 AM on June 10, 2023

Best answer: I've found that eating a snack with fat and protein helps a lot more than just carbs

Maybe get a bunch of cheese sticks and just put one next to the bed so if you wake up you can eat a cheese stick and go back to sleep instead of disrupting your sleep more with a trip to the fridge
posted by Jacqueline at 8:48 AM on June 10, 2023

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I marked a few best answers that offer easy places to get started, like planning a protein heavy snack to have on hand, as well as comments about investigating my blood sugar. It has always been ‘normal’ but hasn’t been checked recently. All the suggestions are really helpful, I will keep coming back here for inspiration if I’m still struggling and will update for posterity if I find a solution.
posted by guessthis at 11:49 AM on June 10, 2023

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