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Night Eating Syndrome

When eating at night becomes a compulsion you can’t control.

What happens when you can’t stop eating snacks after dinner, don’t sleep well at night, and feel the need to eat in order to help you fall back asleep? You gain weight and feel guilty about overeating. If this sounds like you, you may want to talk with your doctor about an eating disorder called night eating syndrome (NES).

What is NES and how is it treated? Keep reading to learn more.

Overeating + Insomnia

Just because you like to snack before bed doesn’t mean you have night eating syndrome. To be diagnosed with this disorder, you must do two things. You must eat at least 25 percent of your daily calories after your evening meal, and you must wake up to eat in the middle of the night, at least two times a week for at least three consecutive months.

Other defining symptoms of NES include the following:

  • Because you eat so much at night or because you sleep in so late, you don’t have an appetite in the morning.
  • After dinner, you have a strong desire to eat before you go to bed.
  • You suffer from insomnia four or five nights out of the week.
  • When you wake in the night, you think that if you eat a snack it’ll help you fall back to sleep. You may feel more anxious or depressed during the evening when you struggle most with overeating.

A Separate Eating Disorder

To some people, NES sounds a lot like binge eating disorder, which causes you to eat too much at one time, day or night. But NES is different. It’s characterized as slow overeating. Instead of gorging yourself, you graze or snack throughout the night.

Night eating syndrome may also be confused with sleep-related eating disorder. An equally strange condition, sleep-related eating disorder causes you to forget that you ate in the night. Someone with NES, on the other hand, remembers eating the night before.

Hormonal or Circadian Rhythm Problems?

Currently, it’s not clear what causes a person to overeat before bed and through the night. It doesn’t seem to be caused by irregular sleep schedules. Doctors believe NES may be related to hormonal imbalances or problems with your internal body clock that affects your sleep-wake cycle, appetite, and energy level.

Someone with NES is more likely to deal with substance abuse, anxiety, or depression. Though anyone can wind up with NES, obesity or other eating disorders increase the risk of developing it. However, research hasn’t shown if obesity is the cause or effect of night eating syndrome.

There Is Help

Someone who struggles with NES may feel overwhelmed, ashamed, and hopeless. They don’t want to overeat at night, yet the urge is so strong and has gone on so long it seems nothing will ever change. The good news is that help is available.

Based on your symptoms and possibly a sleep study, your doctor can diagnose NES and start you on the path of effective treatment. While more studies are needed on the syndrome, many people have found help through a combination of antidepressant medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.

A therapist may counsel you to adjust your eating schedule. Even if you don’t feel hungry in the morning, it’s important to eat a small breakfast early in the day. The size of the breakfast should slowly increase over time. Then, it’s recommended to adopt a new nighttime routine, one that leads to relaxation and promotes healthy sleep habits. This might mean turning off all screens an hour before bed, only going to bed when you’re tired, dimming the lights at night, and exposing yourself to bright light in the morning.