Here’s what your ravenous appetite might be trying to tell you.

By Krissy Brady
Updated January 04, 2019
Credit: PhotoAlto/Alix Minde/Getty

The process of keeping your body nourished is simple enough on paper: your hunger alarm goes off, you eat to silence it, rinse and repeat. But sometimes the body’s push notifications aren’t entirely accurate—and these false alarms can happen at the worst possible times, like in the middle of the night.

For the most part, hunger isn’t an emergency. “You’re supposed to feel a little hungry—not stuffed, but comfortable,” says Luiza Petre, New York-based board-certified cardiologist and weight management specialist. However, if you feel starving or ravenous (especially in the middle of the night or super early in the morning), there may be some nutritional issues that you need to address.

Here are six reasons why your middle-of-the-night hunger pangs just won’t quit, and the dietary tweaks you can make to keep them from continuing.

1. You’ve Changed Up Your Workout

When you’ve been cruising along with a particular workout for a while, your body adapts and becomes more efficient at completing that workout, ultimately burning fewer calories. So if you decide to switch up your workout to one that’s not only different, but longer or more intense, you may experience a temporary increase in calorie burn—and not bumping up your food intake during the transition can lead to an energy deficit that causes you to wake up with hunger pangs, says Suzanne Dixon, RD, registered dietitian with The Mesothelioma Center in Portland, Oregon.

“It’s unlikely the energy deficit change is more than a few hundred calories,” says Dixon. “For this reason, you can probably fix the problem by adding in a 200- to 300-calorie balanced snack in the evening, about one to two hours before going to bed.” (For example, Greek yogurt and a banana or a few berries.)

2. You Eat Large Meals Too Close to Bedtime

“Some people are more sensitive to large doses of carbs, which can lead to low blood sugar after a big meal,” says Dixon. “Their bodies can ‘overshoot’ a bit on insulin production in response to a carb-rich meal (especially if the carbs are simple).” The result? Blood glucose can drop too low an hour or so after eating, and this could be why someone wakes up super hungry after eating a big meal right before bed.

When your dinners are of the last-minute variety, the best solution is to nosh on a smaller meal that includes lean protein, complex carbs, and a bit of fat, says Dixon. (Too much fat makes food sit in your stomach longer, and right before bed would be a recipe for heartburn and tossing and turning.) A low-key, satisfying option would be yogurt and cereal—just make sure the cereal is a high-fiber, low-added sugar variety.

3. Your Sleep Habits Have Changed

A lack of sleep can cause an imbalance of hormone levels, making you feel hungry even when your body doesn’t need food, says Petre. The hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin stimulate and suppress appetite, respectively—and when you’re sleep-deprived, ghrelin levels go up and leptin levels go down. “This leads to increased hunger and more inadvertent snacking during the day and night,” says Petre. Best to get a grip on any habits that are getting in the way of you scoring quality shuteye so that cranky stomach of yours can follow suit.

4. You’ve Been Skipping Meals

These days, with our jam-packed schedules and constant rushing around, it’s easier than ever to skip meals. And if the calorie deficit becomes too large, this can interrupt sleep. “The hunger cues may be strong enough to wake a person up because the body and brain are prioritizing eating over sleep,” says Dixon. Do your best to break this bad habit—and when you do eat, make sure your meals and snacks consistently contain a mix of lean protein, fiber, and heart-healthy fats. “Eating this way will keep your blood sugar and energy levels steady, helping you to stave off hunger and sleep sounder,” says Petre.

5. You’re Actually Thirsty

Being that every cell in the body needs H20 to function optimally, it’s no surprise that when you’re running low, your body will sound the alarm—even if that’s in the middle of the night, says Amy Sunderman, RD, director of science and innovation for Swanson Health. It can be easy to confuse hunger pangs with thirst, so consider leaving a glass of water by your bedside and drink it first to confirm it’s actually your appetite calling the shots.

6. Your Blood Sugar’s out of Whack

If you’re diabetic or pre-diabetic, your cells aren’t able to absorb energy (in the form of glucose) properly because they’re not responding to insulin—the hormone that regulates the amount of glucose in the blood—the way they should, says Dixon. This means, even if you’re eating, your body still senses that you’re “hungry” because your cells aren’t getting any fuel, and these hunger cues may wake you up.

If you aren’t dieting, haven’t changed your eating or lifestyle habits much, and you’re suddenly waking up famished all the time, says Dixon, consult with your doc about getting some basic lab work done to check your glucose and insulin levels.