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Can't Sleep When Hungry: What Can You Do?

by Dale Cudmore | Updated: Mar 07, 2022

It turns out the phrase “never go to bed hungry” has some merit to it.

Studies have found a correlation between hunger and overall sleep quality; specifically, hunger makes the time it takes to fall asleep longer, and lowers total sleep duration (1, 2).

From a common sense point of view, your brain is going to want to wake you up to search for food if you’re hungry.

If this is a regularly occurring issue, it can have a significant effect on your health.

So what can you do?

How to Fall Asleep If You’re Hungry Before Sleep

The obvious solution is to simply eat more during the day.

If cost of food is an issue, there’s no shame in reaching out for help at local food banks.

But in other situations you may just end up hungry unexpectedly, so let’s look at a few key things you can do.

Most Importantly: Don’t Stress

Very few things destroy sleep quality like anxiety.

If you focus your thoughts on your hunger, it will only become more uncomfortable and make it more difficult to fall asleep.

The better alternative is to take a mindfulness approach: Acknowledge that you’re hungry, but know that the hunger will lessen and go away shortly, and that you’ll be able to eat tomorrow.

Don’t let hunger make your sleep any worse than it has to.

Have a Quick Snack of the Right Kinds of Food

If it’s at all possible, have a quick snack to get rid of your hunger.

However, you also don’t want to eat too much, because eating right before bed can negatively affect sleep.

One study examined the best foods to eat at night and found (3):

Negative outcomes may not be consistent when the food choice is small, nutrient-dense, low energy foods and/or single macronutrients rather than large mixed-meals.

So stick to something that digests relatively quickly like a banana or even a slice of bread.

You’re not trying to eat until you’re “full”, just enough so that you’re not hungry to the point of being uncomfortable. Keep in mind that it takes about 20 minutes for food to affect your hunger levels, so have some patience right after you eat.

Reduce Your Exposure to Blue Light At Night

While this isn’t the biggest deal, it may help you a bit if you regularly find yourself hungry at night.

It’s well known that blue light causes insomnia symptoms for many. At the very least it makes it harder to fall asleep.

Blue light refers to a spectrum of low-frequency light that’s common in screens (tv, computer, phone, etc.), and certain types of lighting like LED bulbs.

While there’s not much research on it, one study has suggested that limiting blue light can reduce hunger (4). It seems that blue light may suppress leptin, which is a hormone that signals that you’re “full.”

The results were not statistically significant, but the effect was decent, so it’d be nice to see more research on this topic.

It’s not a huge thing, but minimizing blue light exposure at night is already a part of good sleep hygiene, so it certainly won’t hurt.

You can reduce blue light by using software like night shift, using blue light glasses, or just by minimize brightness of light sources in general at night.

Eat More Fat During the Day

Research has shown that high fat diets satiate hunger much better than high carbohydrate diets (5).

Of course you don’t need to suddenly start a ketogenic diet, but eating more fat during the day can keep you full for longer.

The only exception is that you don’t want to eat a lot of fat in the hours leading up to sleep because it takes longer to digest and can make it harder to fall asleep.

Summary: Sleeping While Hungry

Hunger is uncomfortable enough to make it harder to sleep.

Not only does hunger make it harder to fall asleep, but you’re more likely to wake up early as well.

I understand not everyone has the luxury, but the only solution is the obvious one of eating more during the day.

If you find yourself very hungry at night, have a quick light snack of something healthy, and try not to develop any anxiety by over obsessing about your hunger.

References

  1. Sleep quality and perceived stress as related to hedonic hunger among university students: A cross-sectional study
  2. The quality and duration of sleep are related to hedonic hunger: a cross-sectional study in university students
  3. The Health Impact of Nighttime Eating: Old and New Perspectives
  4. Hunger hormone and sleep responses to the built-in blue-light filter on an electronic device
  5. The Effects of a Low-Carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet and a Low-Fat Diet on Mood, Hunger, and Other Self-Reported Symptoms

Medical Disclaimer: The information on SnoozeUniversity.com is not intended to be a substitute for physician or other qualified care. We simply aim to inform people struggling with sleep issues about the nature of their condition and/or prescribed treatment.


About the authorDale is the founder of Snooze University and a sleep researcher. I overcame my sleep issues and now I'd like to help you do the same by summarizing the latest sleep studies for you.