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Nighttime Eating, Sleep-Wake Cycles, and Stress Management

Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition


The New Year naturally brings resolutions to make healthier habits. With busy and erratic schedules, regular mealtimes often fall by the wayside. Meals are skipped or other irregular eating patterns occur. In addition, inconsistent sleep-wake routines, changing work shifts, taking care of young children or elderly parents at night, or simply getting into a bad habit of staying up too late at night, contributes to altered circadian rhythms. These irregular patterns can increase nighttime eating and it comes with a substantial cost to your metabolism. Get your nighttime eating under control to help your New Year’s goals and healthier you!


Night Eating Syndrome


Night Eating Syndrome is the term applied to individuals who consume more than 25 percent of their daily nutrition after the evening meal two or more times per week. In addition to the late night eating pattern, individuals who follow this pattern also have poor quality sleep and no appetite in the morning.


The pattern of eating late at night causes obvious challenges to metabolism. Research shows that individuals who eat significant amounts of food after dinner were “significantly and independently associated with increased body mass index (BMI), shorter sleep duration, later sleep-wake schedule, and higher insomnia scores”. In other words, eating a big snack or meal before bed was linked with weight gain/obesity, insomnia, poor quality sleep, and disrupted body rhythms.


Night Eating Syndrome was first described in 1955, but little attention was given to it until the late 1990’s. It is mostly attributed to a delay in the circadian rhythm of eating along with other factors like high levels of the hormone prolactin relative to other hormones. Night Eating Syndrome is not the same as Sleep Related Eating Disorder in which you can’t recall getting up in the middle of the night to raid the refrigerator.


Metabolic Effects of Night Eating: Prolactin


The hormone prolactin was originally discovered and named for its role in promoting lactation. It has since been found to be involved with numerous actions throughout many internal organs and the nervous system. Further research has found that prolactin is significantly involved with body weight management, adipose tissue, pancreas, adrenal glands, and other tissues in response to stress and much more.


Things that Impact Prolactin


Studies show that secretion of prolactin in the brain and elsewhere in the body is greatly impacted by light. Animals that were either in a state of constant light or light deprivation, i.e. disrupted day-night/light-dark rhythms experienced higher prolactin levels. Several other stressors, including academic stress, have been found to stimulate production of prolactin. Increased levels of prolactin have also been found with low thyroid function.


Neurotransmitters, dopamine, GABA, and histamine affect prolactin levels too. Dopamine and GABA are instrumental in dampening prolactin secretion and activity in the brain. However, increased histamine levels contribute to prolactin secretion.


Research on prolactin is complicated. Much is left to be learned about its complete role in metabolism, weight management, and nighttime eating. We do know that dysregulation of the circadian rhythms and metabolism linked with nighttime eating and the hormone leptin are problematic. Theoretically, it is likely that prolactin is linked with leptin somehow, but research is inadequate to prove this. Here are some practical take away points to get your new year started on the right track and stop the midnight food raids.


Practical Points 1. Circadian Rhythms.


Follow the natural day-night/light-dark circadian rhythms as much as possible. Artificial lights at night and irregular schedules change your body’s natural, ingrained body clocks. Chronic dysregulation of your circadian rhythm affects gene signals and body clocks related to body weight, metabolism, blood sugar, hunger and satiety, digestion and bowel motility, thyroid and adrenal function, and so much more.



Decades of research show that individuals who work swing shifts and/or night shifts have some of the greatest challenges to metabolism, leptin and insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and obesity and other health concerns. This disruption to the natural circadian rhythm is at the root of metabolic dysregulation.


If you can’t change your work schedule, use natural full-spectrum light bulbs when you are awake. Also use black-out curtains when you sleep to mimic natural day-night rhythms and shut down electronics in your bedroom to avoid EMF adverse effects against melatonin production.


Morning Energy


If getting out of bed in the morning requires 3 alarm clocks or massive amounts of caffeine to get you going, you must work on getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation increases appetite, derails circadian rhythm, and is linked with metabolic syndrome; not to mention that it affects reaction times, mental clarity, and mood.


To help turn on energy first thing in the AM, do a short burst of HIIT/high intensity interval exercise for five minutes. Do knee bends, jumping jacks, push-ups or jogging in place for 30-60 seconds. Rest for 15-30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times or more for a total five minutes. This burst of exercise causes a natural increase in cortisol which is the primary wake-up hormone. If the exercise causes your energy to crash immediately or within 24 hours, you must decrease the intensity and/or duration of the exercise level to something more tolerable. You may also need some serious rest and rejuvenation time.


The coenzyme form of vitamin B5 called Pantethine provides great support for morning energy. Take 300-900 mg (1-3 caps) first thing in the morning to help turn energy on. Add Stress Helper or Adrenal Helper and Vitamin C if you are stressed or burned out and exhausted. If you have “adrenal fatigue”, these practical tips listed here are highly important to restoring your vitality.


2. The Leptin Diet.


The Leptin Diet is a great lifestyle eating plan that naturally gets leptin, circadian rhythms, and your body clocks in sync. Follow the Five Rules of the The Leptin Diet:


• Rule 1: Never eat after dinner.

• Rule 2: Eat three meals a day.

• Rule 3: Do not eat large meals.

• Rule 4: Eat a breakfast containing protein.

• Rule 5: Reduce the amount of carbohydrates eaten.


Breakfast. It is the most important meal of the day. Eat breakfast within 60-90 minutes after awakening. Fat burning, thyroid and adrenal metabolism, mitochondrial activity, insulin and leptin management, digestion and motility, and liver and detoxification are intimately entwined with daylight exposure/circadian rhythm and breakfast first thing in the morning.


High quality protein engages a higher rate of metabolism for longer periods of time compared to a breakfast packed with carbohydrates. Protein-rich foods include eggs, dairy, organic grass-fed meats and poultry. Seeds, nuts, beans, and legumes also provide protein. The amount and bioavailability of protein in these plant-based foods however is less than animal protein which results in needing to eat more to achieve essential amounts. Strive for at least 20-25 grams or a palm size serving of protein at breakfast.


One large egg is 7 grams of protein. One cup lowfat yogurt provides 12 grams of protein. One scoop of Daily Protein Unflavored provides 26 grams of protein without any sugar or cholesterol. It is okay to have small serving of non-instant oatmeal or quinoa and/or a piece of fruit or vegetable with the protein. Include a serving of fats/oils like coconut oil, avocado, or butter with breakfast. This will help you feel more satisfied and keep blood sugar levels more stable than a carbohydrate-rich breakfast.


If you are not hungry first thing in the morning, do your best to have a small breakfast. Warm, cooked food with warm tea is easier to digest than cold food, coffee or lattes. Sprinkle a capsule of Digestive Helper on the food or take 1-2 capsules orally with your meal. This supports a weak appetite.


Avoiding grazing or frequent snacks. Your body needs time to cycle through its digestive processes and movements. Grazing or frequent snacking disrupts body clocks within your digestive tract and liver contributing to indigestion, poor bowel motility, reflux, blood sugar dysregulation, and leptin resistance.


You can learn more in the books, The Leptin Diet and Mastering Leptin. Extensive intermittent fasting or extended fasting is not recommended if you are physically exhausted and/or nutritionally depleted from poor diet and lifestyle.


3. Stress and Neurotransmitter Support


Dopamine and GABA are neurotransmitters used for many neurological and metabolic functions including prolactin management. Daily stressors, poor diet, lack of sleep, lack of protein/amino acids or other nutrients contribute to lower levels of these neurotransmitters. Optimize your nutritional status to support stress tolerance, which in turn helps circadian management, appetite control, and metabolism.


The amino acid tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine. Tyrosine-rich foods include beef, pork, fish, chicken, cheese, and milk. Much smaller amounts are found in beans, legumes, whole grains, seeds and nuts. Other nutrients used to support the dopamine pathway include iron, copper, folate, SAMe and vitamins B3, B6 and C.


GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter used by the brain. Stress, overwork, caffeine, overstimulation, lack of sleep, food allergies/intolerance, blue light (tech devices) and bright lights etc. stimulate excitatory activity in your brain. GABA calms down stimulation and stress. Nutrients that support the natural production and management of GABA include theanine, passion flower, lemon balm, and magnesium as found in the well+vita calm supplement.


GABA support can be used with melatonin at bedtime for circadian rhythm support and sleep. Studies in women with metabolic syndrome showed that cortisol and melatonin levels were low and dysregulated and correlated with disrupted circadian rhythms. Melatonin can used be periodically or on a long-term basis as needed for sleep-circadian rhythm, antioxidant or immune modulatory effects.


Histamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter. It helps with wakefulness. Nutrients that naturally modulate histamine include quercetin, curcumin, tocotrienols, magnesium, B vitamins, and vitamin C.