By Deborah Fields, BSc (Hons), PgDip, MCIPR
Night eating disorder, also known as night eating syndrome, is a condition where a person will tend to eat at least 25% of their daily calories after they have had their evening meal. The condition also results in disturbances in the person’s sleep pattern. A similar condition is sleep related eating disorder (SRED).
The difference in the two is that a person with night eating disorder is aware that he or she is waking up and eating throughout the night but a person with SRED is often oblivious to the waking and eating. A SRED individual can also eat items that are very dangerous for them because of the lack of awareness.
Who gets night eating disorder?
Both men and women suffer from the night eating disorder condition, although it is not usually experienced by children. Around 1-2% of the population is thought to have this condition. It is much more common in people who have a severe weight problem. About 28% of people who have had gastric bypass surgery are believed to experience it. It first tends to affect people in their teens or late twenties.
In psychiatric outpatients the prevalence of night eating disorder is ten times greater in comparison to the general population, most notably among those with substance use disorder. Individuals that take psychotropic drugs (such as atypical antipsychotics) also show an increased risk of developing night eating disorder, as their sense of hunger and satiety is affected.
People with the disorder often have accompanying mood disorders such as depression and a negative view of themselves. The condition is characterized by the individual waking up from sleep to consume a brief snack or drink at intervals in the night.
They often see food as a way of achieving further sleep when they have woken up during the night. The food eaten each time is not especially high in the amounts of calories but on average in the region of 270 (kilo)calories (although the frequency of the act of eating is what makes the difference). There is a preference for carbohydrates. However, in the morning the person is not particularly hungry, meaning that they do not eat much at that part of the day.
A person with night eating disorder may suffer from a hormonal imbalance or contributing genetic reasons for their eating practices at night. The levels of melatonin, the hormone that helps to regulate sleep, may change dramatically during the night for a night eating disorder person. The level of melatonin is usually controlled by the body clock.
A person with SRED can also suffer from conditions such as restless leg syndrome which is an urge to move their legs. This has been linked to the chemical dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the body that contributes to movement.
The night eating disorder, due to the effects on the body of overeating food in a shorter period of time, can put the person at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Weight gain can contribute to these illnesses, but not everyone with the condition is overweight.
Patients with the condition can undergo therapy to help them to tackle their unusual eating patterns. Some work may need to be done to reduce their feeling of shame.
Stress can make them wake up to eat at night so some counselling can be provided to help them deal with the reasons behind this as well. There are also a number of therapies that may be valuable such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a talking therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, a way of altering unhelpful behaviors and interpersonal therapy - a method for dealing with moods.
Reviewed by: Dr Tomislav Meštrović, MD, PhD
Last Updated: May 18, 2016