Night Eating Syndrome

When it's a pattern, late-night nibbling could be a problem.

Posted Sep 26, 2014

In the years since that early research, Stunkard and other researchers discovered that people with NES experience consistent and abnormal hormonal changes. Normally, night brings on an increase in the hormone melatonin, which helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. Night eaters do not show the same rise in melatonin or in the hormone leptin, which suppresses hunger. At the same time, the stress hormone cortisol is elevated throughout the day and night in people with NES, indicating that this is a combined eating, sleep, and stress-related disorder.

Those with NES tend to be bingers, eating a lot of food at one time. Though they tend to be overweight or obese, it is now known that a small percent of normal-weight people also have NES. Those who suffer from NES often think, “If I don’t eat, I won’t be able to sleep.” Studies have also found that substance abuse problems are more than three times as common in those with NES than in those without NES, which is comparable to the rate of substance abuse found with eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa

Experts, including Dr. Stunkard who co-wrote a book called “Overcoming Night Eating Syndrome,” agree that the first step to conquering NES is awareness. If you are overweight, eat more than half of your food at night, have trouble falling or staying asleep, and don’t eat breakfast, you might have NES. If you are under a doctor’s care, medication may be used to treat NES. But self-help techniques, such as exercising, deep breathing and other methods to help reduce stress, establishing limits on when you can eat and the amount of food you can eat at night, and keeping a food/eating/feelings journal have also proved helpful.

Note: Night eating syndrome is not to be confused with nocturnal sleep-related disorder (NSRED), or sleep-eating, a rare condition that affects only a small subset of sleepwalkers. People with NSRED often eat and sometimes binge in their sleep. They are usually overweight and typically choose high-fat, high-sugar, and high-calorie foods. They are unaware of their behavior while it’s happening, and in the morning, have no recollection of their sleep-eating episodes. As a result, sleep eaters may not be fully aware of their problem. Not much is known about the causes of NSRED, but it is considered a reflection of an underlying psychological problem, such as depression, that is not necessarily related to sleep or hunger.