Should Your Night Eating Habits Alarm You?

Do you have trouble staying asleep at night or do you often wake up and eat? Do you crave for sugary and starchy food at night? Is your eating habit at night accompanied with tension, anxiety and guilt? If yes to these (and to more symptoms later), then you may be manifesting the night eating syndrome.

Although Night Eating Syndrome has not yet been defined formally and included in the spectrum of eating disorder, it has been identified and has been undergoing in-depth studies as to causes and cure.

For your night eating habit to be called a syndrome, first it has to be repetitive. If you are doing it in sporadic, infrequent and unintentional manner, then you need not be alarmed.

NES Symptoms

First described in 1950’s, NES manifests among 1.5 % of the general adult population. However a study (read it here) from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine suggests that most people, who seek obesity treatment, 8.9% at least, have the Night Eating syndrome. Read another study here from National Institute of Health.

Often, NES is associated with obesity and even substance abuse. The excessive eating in the evening is called hyperphagia. It is more prevalent than known eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia.

Night Eating Syndrome (NES) is often characterized by the following symptoms:

  1. No appetite for breakfast since already full from the night’s binging.
  2. Delays first meal for hours after waking up.
  3. Leaves the bed to snack at night.
  4. Eats more food after dinner than during the meal.
  5. Eats more than half of the daily food intake during and after dinner.
  6. Repeated behaviour of at least two months or more.
  7. Person with the recurring pattern is tense, anxious and feels guilty over the eating habit.
  8. Restless sleeping and frequent waking up to eat is observed.
  9. Cravings for carbohydrates.
  10. The eating process is continual throughout the evening hours.

What Causes NES?

Night Eating Syndrome is known to stem from various causes. One theory suggests that it can be from a habit that college students picked up wherein they are unable to stop once they became working adults. This is even heightened among high achievers when they work through and forgo lunch and just compensate for it at night.

“Night eating syndrome is characterized not only by eating at night – certainly many college students might have a late night study fest with eating – but it’s also characterized by other things, like feeling that you can’t eat in the morning, and feeling like you have to eat in order to go back to sleep,” Dr. Rebecka Peebles, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, told Reuters Health in an interview. Read more: Doctors Are Gaining a Better Understanding of Night Eating Syndrome

Stress is also one of the most common precursors to NES. Night Eating may soothe and comfort those who experience anxiety and stress, thus the habit perseveres. Hormonal patterns are also linked to the cause of the syndrome. Disruption of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is also said to be a theoretical cause. Wherein people are forced to eat when they should not and don’t eat when they should have.

Biologically, NES is also said to be related to faulty genes. In a study published in Cell Reports, a study on mice with human body clock gene has been done to prove gene’s relationship with the NES. The mice have the body clock gene silenced which led to sleeping more and the fault in it may disrupt sleep and eating patterns.

Managing NES

There are various treatments for NES. And with will and determination, it can be overcome with medical help. NES can respond to medical prescription such as sertraline, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.

Other treatments include:

  1. Maintaining of food diary. List down the food you eat and the time you consume them. This is the first step that your doctor will require you to help you manage the condition.
  2. Increase of physical activity and having a consistent exercise program. First, exercise can prep the body to become stronger. Exercise routine helps the body, clears the mind and is a healthy way to combat any medical condition.
  3. Record of bedtimes and awakening. The sleeping patterns you can record here can help your doctor and you manage and come up with the proper plan to address the habit.
  4. Cognitive behavioural therapy. Cognitive behavioural therapy includes cognitive mapping and behavior valuation. It combines other technique which may help reduce trips to the refrigerator.
  5. Interpersonal and psychodynamic therapy. Stress reduction techniques are also included here.
  6. Putting up of barriers from foods e.g. locking of food out of reach.
  7. Complete health evaluation. Before any specific treatment, a complete valuation of health is needed to personalize treatments. Since NES might stem from other condition, a medical check-up is really needed to recognize some inherent condition.
  8. Dietician approved eating pace. Pacing your meals and your food can also be a way to manage NES. This should be approved by a licensed dietician for it to work.

Other Related Points

NES is not the same with the sleep-related eating disorder or the SRED wherein people eat while sleepwalking. In another study published this February, NES is common among students who are taking medications for ADHD or the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

NES is also opposed to old time known binge eating, since though there is the need to eat, “grazing” only on food is its characteristics. This, sufferers believe, will help them get back to sleep or improve their sleep. Remorse over the behavior may happen after, or early in the morning pushing them to avoid breakfast.

The NES predisposes the sufferers to emotional and psychological effects, weight gain, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and high blood pressure. The condition can throw weight and health out of sync, read a Harvard Blog on the topic here.

Online help for people with this condition includes support groups and forums, are available all over the internet.

Related Studies:

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – Nighttime eating: commonly observed and related to weight gain in an inpatient food intake study1,2,3
US National Library of Medicine NIH – Binge Eating Disorder and Night Eating Syndrome in Adults with Type 2 Diabetes
Night eating syndrome and nocturnal snacking: association with obesity, binge eating and psychological distress
Circadian eating and sleeping patterns in the night eating syndrome
Binge eating disorder and night eating syndrome: a comparative study of disordered eating.
Night Eating Syndrome Is Associated with Depression, Low Self‐Esteem, Reduced Daytime Hunger, and Less Weight Loss in Obese Outpatients
 featured image: xvire


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