Late-night snacking has side effects for hormones and health

Snacking late at night can cause weight gain, insomnia and depression. Break the habit of nighttime binging with these expert tips.

by 4
woman looking in fridge, food

Getty Images

The pattern of eating few calories during the day and ingesting more food late at night is more common than you think. Usually it starts with skipping breakfast, eating a small lunch, and by 8 pm you’re standing in front of the fridge eating everything in sight –  sometimes even wakening during the night with food cravings. This pattern can be reversed along with the associated weight gain by taking proper supplements, changing eating habits, sleep behaviour and exercise.

The delicate balance of hormones involved with healthy sleep, stress response and appetite regulation is at the root of your late-night snacking habits. While some people may do this occasionally, for others, it’s a regular nightly occurrence. Furthermore, night eaters are much more likely to suffer from depression, low self-esteem and insomnia. Night eaters wake up on average 10 to12 times more often than a control group without the condition (average 3.6 times per night, compared with 0.3 times nightly in non-affected individuals). This scenario is often a symptom of the following:

Low melatonin: A hormone released by the pineal gland, melatonin is necessary for healthy sleep patterns, including falling and staying asleep. For optimal levels of melatonin, you must sleep in complete darkness – a small spot of light shining on your skin is enough to inhibit melatonin production. Also, don’t eat too close to bedtime. It’s best to stop eating by 7:30 or 8:00 pm because eating too late interferes with the release of melatonin, which affects the cooling down in body temperature necessary to induce sleep. Not surprisingly, if you find that you are opting for food instead of sleep, you may have low melatonin.

Increased cortisol: Cortisol is a stimulating hormone that is released when we are under stress. It is naturally highest around 6 am in preparation for the day and gradually decreases into the night. Cortisol slightly rises again at 2 am and 4 am as it starts to begin its cycle. Most sleep-deprived individuals have been found to have abnormally high levels of cortisol in the evening and during the day. As well, high levels of cortisol in the evening may result in an inability to fall asleep, leading to more eating, as well as a pattern of waking between 2 and 4 am, which is characteristic of stress.

Low leptin, elevated ghrelin: Ghrelin stimulates appetite while leptin let’s us know when we’re full, keeping our appetite in check. Together, they control feelings of hunger and fullness. Lower leptin levels can lead to late night eating and sleep-disturbing hunger pangs. A 2004 study from the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study found that short sleep duration was associated with reduced leptin during sleep, elevated ghrelin and increased Body Mass Index.

Recommendations to put the brakes on late night snacking

An effective treatment plan for night eaters must involve a multifaceted approach directed at raising melatonin levels, managing stress as well as assisting weight loss. Along with following the dietary habits outlined in The Hormone Diet, the tips may also be beneficial:

Time your workouts: Prolonged and excessive cardio causes an increase in cortisol, and in turn send your appetite through the roof and your sleep will suffer. Since cortisol release during exercise appears to depend on the time of day we choose to work out, I recommend doing any cardio sessions in the morning, since the right amount will lower your stress hormones, and your strength training in the evening when cortisol is lower, to allow for greater muscle growth. All the while, keeping each workout no longer than 30 minutes.

Morning protein, evening carbs: If your blood sugar levels are on a rollercoaster all day, you can bet your cortisol is as well, which may just leave you standing in front of the fridge late at night with the door open and your stomach growling. You can reduce the stress associated with blood sugar imbalance by eating a high protein breakfast within one hour of rising and avoiding more than a 3-4 hour gap between meals or snacks. Don’t skimp on the protein or healthy fats at each and every meal and snack, and save your low glycemic carbohydrate for your dinner. This will boost your serotonin levels and relax you before bed. Some great protein options include: eggs, chicken, turkey, shellfish, seafood, fish while a low GI carb may include sweet potato or quinoa (size of fist).

Helpful supplements: Relora (an extract of magnolia bark proven to reduce cortisol) preferably taken in the evening, has been found to reduce high cortisol levels as well as aid in weight loss around the abdomen. Relora can also assist with re-establishing healthy sleep patterns; the typical dosage is 600mg per day (2 capsules before bed). If you find yourself experiencing mid-day stress you can also take 1 capsule upon rising.

5-HTP (the amino acid precursor your body needs to produce serotonin) best taken in the evening, is an excellent way to increase serotonin levels. Serotonin deficiencies have been linked to insomnia, over-consumption of carbohydrates and stress-related eating. Dosage ranges from 50 to 200 mg per day.

Melatonin: Since the majority of night eaters have low levels of melatonin, taking a melatonin supplement can be of benefit. A 3 mg pill, taken nightly, in conjunction with relora and 5-HTP, can be useful in many cases.

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and her newest release, The Supercharged Hormone Diet, now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here.