Night Eating Syndrome was not formally recognised as an eating disorder until recently. However; it has many of the symptoms and consequences of one;
- including a compulsive need to eat,
- feelings of guilt or shame over eating behaviour,
- obsessing over food
- feeling out of control
- physical and mental health consequences
- high risk for obesity
“Night eating syndrome is characterised by a lack of appetite in the morning & overeating at night with agitation & insomnia. Not only is night eating syndrome an eating disorder, but one of mood and sleep as well. People who fall prey to this syndrome are not simply indulging in a bad habit. They have a real clinical illness, reflected by changes in hormone levels.” Albert Stunkard, MD, University of Pennsylvania’s Weight & Eating Disorders Program.
“People with night eating syndrome start out daily with morning anorexia, (not eating anything all morning), and consume fewer than average calories throughout the day. As the day wears on, their mood worsens & they become more & more depressed,” claims Stunkard. He also states that during the night the sufferers raid the fridge and cupboards for high-carbohydrate snacks, several times a night. Anxiety and low mood increases throughout the night, so does the eating. “This snacking may be a way for these persons to medicate themselves because they eat a lot of carbohydrates, increasing serotonin in the brain which in turn, leads to sleep.”
Foods eaten during the night eating binge are often highly caloric in content and unhealthy. The night eating behaviour seems totally beyond the effected individual’s control. For these individuals, 25-50% of their total calories are eaten after dinnertime.
Following the night binge, the person is often not hungry in the morning. Individuals suffering from Night Eating Syndrome are often caught in the vicious cycle of binge eating during the night and eating less during the day. Triggers for Night Eating Syndrome include depression, anxiety, interpersonal stressors, boredom, prolonged dieting, and body image dissatisfaction. Night eating may temporarily relieve the stress of these unwanted feelings, but for the night eater these episodes are unfortunately followed by feelings of guilt, shame, disgust, and further depression.
For the person suffering from Night Eating Syndrome, the eating episodes usually occur in secret and any evidence is often hidden from others. Similar to Anorexics, Bulimic, and Compulsive Overeater’s, individuals suffering from Night Eating Syndrome are often struggling and unhappy with their weight.
It is estimated that up to one percent of the population may be suffering to some extent from Night Eating Syndrome. Like Anorexia nervosa, Bulimia nervosa, and Compulsive Overeating Disorder Night Eating Syndrome is a serious problem and cannot be ‘cured’ with willpower alone.
Night eating syndrome signs and symptoms
- The person has little or no appetite for breakfast. Is not hungry or is upset about how much was eaten the night before
- Feels nauseous in the morning
- Delays first meal for several hours after waking up
- Limits the amount of food they eat throughout the day
- Binge eating right before bed or continually eating during the night
- Eats more food after dinner than during that meal
- Eats more than half of daily food intake after dinner but before breakfast
- May leave the bed due to an uncontrollable desire to eat during the night
- Person feels tense, anxious, upset, or guilty while eating
- NES is often stress related and is frequently accompanied by depression. The person may be moody, tense, anxious, nervous, agitated, etc. especially in the evening
- Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Wakes frequently and has a compulsion to eat
- Foods eaten are usually carbohydrates – sugary and starchy.
- Behaviour is not like typical binge eating, (done in relatively short episodes). Night-eating syndrome is normally continual eating throughout evening hours
- Eating is often hidden from others
- This eating produces guilt and shame, not enjoyment
- Excessive weight gain
This pattern of self-starvation and over-consumption causes many individuals with NES to develop insomnia or other sleep disturbances. Most sufferers with this disorder feel they cannot fall asleep unless they eat just before going to bed. However; some individuals are aware that they are eating at night because they are ‘waking up’ and eating in a sleep-walking state.
Causes of Night Eating Syndrome
Night Eating Syndrome can be caused by several different factors, including hormone imbalances, excessive stress, and underlying eating and mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, self-starvation and food addiction.
- Hormone imbalances, such as very low levels of melatonin, leptin and serotonin, can disrupt normal sleep/wake cycles and negatively affect eating patterns.
- Excessive stress at work or home can cause a person to turn to night eating in order to cope.
- Strict dieting throughout the day can lead the person to overcompensate by bingeing at night.
- Depression and anxiety can lead to emotional binge eating. During binges, people typically turn to carbohydrate-rich foods, which have been shown to increase levels of serotonin in the brain and help a person sleep at night.
- An addiction to food can cause many to develop Night Eating Syndrome because they have learned to rely on night binges in order to fall asleep and function during the day.
What should I do?
If you feel you are developing an eating problem then getting help early on is very important.
You may wish to see your GP. They can check that symptoms, (weight loss or gain), are not due to an underlying physical condition.
If there is no such underlying conditions causing the problem the eating problem needs to be treated ASAP before it gets a strong hold on you. Treatment is usually through changing both your eating pattern and addressing the emotions behind it.
The Flourish Programme is excellent at helping with this problem.
Please go to richardwain.com for full details of treatement