How Stress Is Messing With Your Hunger Hormones—and How to Turn Things Around

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Despite our best efforts, at some point, every one of us has succumbed to late-night snacking. Call it a midnight snack, a post-dinner dish to accompany a Netflix marathon, or a quick fix to alleviate feelings of being hangry—whatever you call it, binge-eating at night is an unhealthy habit of which we've all been guilty. The worst part is that one episode typically leads to unhealthy eating later in the week, whether that means skipping breakfast the next day because you're still feeling full from the previous night's indulgences, or craving high-sugar and high-carb foods to fuel your day, only to crash and turn to more snacks. It's easy to get stuck in the cycle, not just because you're forming a habit but because you're actually messing with your appetite-regulating hormones.

New findings published in The International Journal of Obesity in December and highlighted earlier this week in The New York Times suggest that satiety hormones and hunger hormones act as puppeteers behind our eating habits—and they're influenced by how we're wired but also by when we choose to eat. The new study builds on earlier work on the subject, including a 2013 Harvard study that found circadian rhythms play a role in regulating appetite. Though it's common knowledge that breakfast is the most important meal of the day (and when we should be consuming most of our calories), hunger levels peak in the evening and are lowest in the morning.

In step with these initial findings, this new study suggests that satiety hormones may be lower during the evening, while hunger hormones rise around nighttime—and are further increased by stressful situations. "There's more opportunity to eat in the evening, but this study is showing that hormonal responses are setting them up to do this," explains an author of the study, Susan Carnell, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

So how can one use this information to reduce their chances of feeling the urge to binge eat after hours? For one, reducing stress is an important factor in getting your hormones back in balance. As you wind down in the evening, especially after dinner, try unplugging and committing to a relaxing activity—like reading a book or journaling—instead of exposing yourself to social media or television.

Second, committing to meal times can help get your internal clock back on track. Carnell suggests that people who know they tend to overeat in the evening and at night to set aside time to have healthy meals during the day and adopt what she calls an "eating curfew" when the kitchen is closed. Brushing your teeth soon after dinner and beginning the rest of your bedtime routine can also help instill the mindset that the day is done and late-night snacking is not an option.