There’s a reason willpower alone doesn’t cut it when it comes to controlling those nighttime binges. As the day moves on, as a matter of course, our hunger hormones set us up to eat more, according to research published in International Journal of Obesity. And if you add stress to the mix, you’re even more likely to have a recipe for nighttime bingeing.

The study: To test the concept, researchers led by those from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine devised an interesting experiment. They asked 19 overweight men and 13 overweight women, half of whom were known binge eaters, to fast for eight hours, then consume a 608-calorie liquid meal at either 9 am (on one day of the experiment) or 4 pm (on a different day of the experiment). About two hours later, the participants were placed in a stress-inducing situation (submerging a hand in freezing water for two minutes). Thirty minutes after the stress test, they were presented with a buffet of pizza, chips, cookies and chocolates that they were free to indulge in. Throughout the study, the researchers tested key hormone levels through blood samples and asked the participants to describe their feelings of hunger and stress.

The findings: When participants had the high-calorie liquid meal in the afternoon they were hungrier after drinking it than when they had it in the morning, both in perception and reality. They not only reported being hungrier—their blood tests also revealed higher levels of the hormone ghrelin, which tells the brain “eat,” and lower levels of the hormone peptide YY, which tells the brain “you don’t need to eat.” And the stress—it  drove up ghrelin even more.

The problem is that higher levels of ghrelin and lower levels of peptide YY can cause not only a single craving but also a vicious cycle of overeating. When a modest nighttime snack leaves you hungry, you’re likely to eat another, larger snack, and another, and another, explains study first author Susan Carnell, PhD. While the study reported this effect in overweight people and found strongest effects in those who were binge eaters (who felt the greatest degree of “loss of control” at the snack buffet), no one is immune.

The solution: If you’re routinely stressed and have gotten into the habit of raiding the kitchen at night, you need to be proactive to master your hunger hormones and break the cycle of nighttime bingeing…

Take specific action to destress in the evening. Activities don’t need to be complicated to relax you and keep your mind off eating. Think back to your favorite childhood activities—did you love to read or to color? Maybe you find listening to music or flipping through magazines a pleasurable distraction. Whatever your choice, take time to relax.

Give yourself an eating curfew. Setting a time when you stop eating, such as by 8 pm or 9 pm, the typical start of “prime-time” binging, can help you repattern your hormone and appetite responses. It’s true that just saying to yourself, I won’t do it after eight o’clock, isn’t going to magically take away the behavior. But it’s an important start. Flip off those kitchen lights, and go to another part of your home. Just moving away from the food source by climbing into bed early with a book may be enough to deter you from raiding the fridge.

Make good “sleep hygiene” a priority. Even a little sleep deprivation can increase ghrelin, so get the number of hours you need to function best every night you can. Also, set a hard end to screen time—one to two hours before you plan on going to sleep. The blue light emitted by televisions, tablets and smart phones can interfere with your circadian rhythm—your sleep/wake cycle—and your stress management efforts. Consider this: One night of tossing and turning can lead to an average of 385 extra calories eaten the next day.

Looking for more tips to control hunger? Try…
How to Stop Thinking About Food and Get on with Your Day
A Surprising Benefit to a Little Hunger
What It Means When Hunger Strikes at Night

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