Most of us have had the urge to grab a bite to eat in the middle of the night when we can’t sleep, feel worried or just have after-dinner hunger pangs. But when eating in the middle of the night gets out of control, your health may be in danger. Consistently consuming most of your calories between the dinner hour and breakfast time is a warning sign of night eating syndrome, or nocturnal eating syndrome (NES). NES is a serious eating disorder that has been linked with depression, stress, hormonal imbalances and abnormal sleep patterns.
When Midnight Snacking Becomes a Compulsion
How do you know when you’ve crossed the line between after-dark snacking and disordered eating habits? According to the journal CNS Drugs, night eating syndrome is associated with a number of unhealthy behaviors, including:
- Eating very little during the daylight hours
- Consuming most of your calories in the evening or at night
- Waking in the middle of the night to binge eat
- Losing sleep because of late-night eating habits
People with NES may have difficulty getting to sleep or falling asleep. They may eat during episodes of insomnia, but unlike people who suffer from parasomnic night eating (eating while asleep), they are always awake during their binges. If you have a pattern of eating a lot after dark, consider if these statements are true for you to see if you might have more than just the occasional midnight food craving:
- I rarely, if ever, eat breakfast.
- For at least two months, I’ve been eating my largest meal in the evening, and I often get up at night to eat again.
- I have trouble sleeping because of stress factors in my life, anxiety or depression.
- When I’m stressed out or depressed, I tend to turn to food for comfort.
- When I eat at night, I eat until I’m uncomfortably full.
- I often feel guilty or ashamed about eating at night, but I can’t control the urge to overeat after dark.
- When I’m eating at night, I feel tense, agitated and irritable, and I hardly ever enjoy my food.
- When I eat at night, I often choose foods high in fat, sugar or starch.
- After eating in the middle of the night, it takes me a long time to get back to sleep.
- Since I started my night eating behavior, I’ve gained weight.
What Causes Night Eating Syndrome?
The specific causes of NES are still under investigation. Both sleep disorders and eating disorders are often related to stress, anxiety and depression, which may interfere with rest and trigger emotional eating. Researchers have also investigated the possibility that NES is associated with a dysfunction in circadian rhythm, your body’s natural cycle of sleeping and wakefulness. A study published in Obesity Research indicates that people with NES may experience hunger at a different time in the sleep-wake cycle than the general population. Instead of having hunger pangs in the morning when they wake, they may feel hunger after dark, when they’re sleeping or attempting to sleep. Night eating syndrome has been connected with low levels of the hormones that affect sleep, mood and appetite. According to the University of Pennsylvania Health System, people with NES have low levels of melatonin, cortisol and leptin. These hormones help regulate the desire to rest and consume food. People with NES often experience increasing depression and anxiety during the day, which corresponds with their compulsion to overeat. They often crave carbohydrate-rich foods, which may help them feel calmer and more relaxed, at least temporarily.
Health Risks and Complications
NES is a serious eating disorder that can have a negative impact on your diet and your sleeping patterns. Consuming most of the day’s food at night puts stress on your digestive system at a time when you should be resting. Many of those who struggle with this syndrome become overweight or obese as a result of their late-night eating habits, according to Obesity Reviews. Obesity can lead to a number of severe, chronic health complications:
- Heart disease
- Certain types of cancer
- Kidney disease
Getting up to eat interrupts your sleep, which could affect your mood, memory and cognitive performance. The loss of sleep can interfere with concentration, increase your risk of accidental injury, and contribute to depression or anxiety disorders. Binge eating in response to stress or depression instead of addressing these issues will only make them worse. If you’ve been eating in the middle of the night for more than a week or two, your eating patterns should be evaluated by an eating disorders specialist. Intensive professional treatment can help you re-establish healthy patterns of eating, sleeping and managing stress.
How to Recover From NES
Recovering from NES requires a comprehensive approach that encompasses your physical cravings for food, your disrupted sleep habits and the emotional roots of your disorder. A treatment plan for night eating syndrome might include:
- Restoring healthy levels of the hormones that contribute to sleep and appetite regulation. Taking melatonin supplements may help you get more satisfying sleep, which may curb night eating episodes.
- Treating underlying mental disorders. If you’ve been diagnosed with a mood disorder or an anxiety disorder, these conditions must be treated by mental health professionals if you are to fully recover from NES.
- Participating in a stress reduction program. Because night eating is often triggered by stress and anxiety, learning alternative ways to manage these triggers may help to reduce your desire to snack at night. Hypnotherapy, biofeedback therapy, yoga, massage and acupuncture may help you reduce stress without turning to food.
- Working with nutritionists or dietitians. A registered dietitian (RD) or nutritionist should be a part of your treatment team when you’re recovering from night eating syndrome. In addition to helping you plan healthy, balanced meals and snacks, these professionals can help you get back to a normal body weight if you’ve gained weight as a result of NES.
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