Night Eating Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments


You may be familiar with anorexia or bulimia nervosa, but night eating syndrome (NES) is another eating disorder that should be on your radar.

NES was first diagnosed in the 1950s by Dr. Albert Stunkard. And it even has a spot in the DSM-5 as an eating disorder. Yet many people have never heard of this syndrome, or are not aware of the associated symptoms.

This disorder usually sets in sometime during young adulthood and can last for many years. Night Eating disorders affect somewhere between one to two percent of the general population and are equal among men and women. Estimates indicate that that ten percent of obese individuals have some varying degree of NES.

Often, Night Eating Syndrome gets confused with other binge eating disorders. But it is important to note that there are some fundamental differences.

Significant amounts of people who suffer from NES are often binge eaters. However, the two aren’t necessarily linked. Individuals who suffer from Night Eating Syndrome consume the majority of their calories at night. They do so out of habitual rituals or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Most people with this disorder feel that they are not in control of their eating patterns. And they often feel ashamed or guilty about their evening food intake.

Top indications of NES get characterized by eating at least 25% of daily calories between dinner and bedtime. Or if they awaken from sleep to eat food at least two or more times per week.

Causes of Night Eating Syndrome

Direct causes of Night Eating Syndrome vary on a case-by-case basis. But some primary characteristics span a lot of diagnoses.

Many doctors believe that some issue with the sleep-wake cycle causes this disorder. However, they don’t think that changes to sleeping patterns or sporadic resting routines trigger the syndrome to occur.

A lot of people with NES develop the disorder during young adulthood. This is often because of habits they formed from having an irregular schedule. For example, late-night eating during college years is usually relatively common and can become a habit that is hard for some people to break.

NES can also develop from restrictive dieting and the brain letting it know that it needs calories. If you haven’t eaten enough during the day, intense cravings can set in. This can result in binging on food during the evening hours.

In some cases, Night Eating System has developed as a coping mechanism to stressful life situations. If meals get skipped during the day, the body sends signals to the brain. It is more common in individuals who have a history of substance abuse, depression, and anxiety than the rest of the general population.

Some research suggests that disordered nighttime eating may come from genetics. There isn’t enough evidence to back this theory up yet. But some professionals sill encourage patients to dive into family history. They do this to see if there is a pattern of unhealthy eating habits that they can uncover.

Symptoms

As noted above, if you eat at least ¼ of your daily calories between dinner and bedtime or if you get out of bed two times or more per week to have a snack, these may be signs of Night Eating Syndrome. Additionally, symptoms of NES typically go on for at least two months.

Other common symptoms of NES include insomnia and nightly mood swings. Some individuals with NES state that if they wake up during the night, they must have a snack in order to fall back asleep.

Commonly, the foods eaten at night are high in carbohydrates and sugar. And feelings of anxiety or tension arise during a snacking episode. Experts believe this is due to the stress-relieving neurochemicals released when these specific foods get eaten. Further feelings of aggression, moodiness, or agitation may occur throughout the remainder of the evening.

Additionally, because of the late-night eating, people with NES may wake up in the morning feeling extremely full and not ready for breakfast. In some cases, people have reported waking up feeling extremely thirsty and bloated. Feeling guilty about the food that was eaten the night before is another common characteristic.

Psychological strain

Psychologically, NES can put a significant strain on a person. A lot of people with this disorder report feeling a loss of control at nighttime in regards to food. People with NES tend to eat even when they aren’t hungry. Or they will continue to eat until they feel too full. In the morning, a lot of people with NES report feeling depressed, guilty, and anxious about the high amount of calories they consumed the night before.

Similar to binge eating disorder, some people with Night Eating Syndrome may eat most of their nightly calories during one sitting. But others may spread their evening food intake out over several small snacks during an evening. In some extreme cases, people leave food on their nightstand and wake up in the middle of their sleep to have a quick snack. Often, this happens in almost a dream-like state.

Night Eating Syndrome Treatments

Luckily, NES is treatable. And people who suffer from this disorder have hope for overcoming this syndrome.

As with many other psychological disorders, a variety of therapy combinations are often used to combat Night Eating Syndrome.

First and foremost, therapists often ensure that their patients become well educated about their condition. Patients need to understand the main characteristics and symptoms of their disorder so that they can work to overcome the unhealthy behaviors.

Often people use nutrition assessments and food diaries during treatment. They do this because they display the eating habits that need to get revamped. Food diaries help to keep patients accountable for treatment. And they support them to space out meals, and calorie intake, appropriately.

Eating at night may not be a telltale sign of NES. So it can be helpful for professionals to have clients take an inventory of their eating behaviors. This will help them to accurately determine if there is an issue or not. Keep in mind, having a snack in between dinner and bed doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a disorder!

Therapy

Counseling techniques, such as cognitive-behavior therapy and interpersonal therapy are often used to help individuals gain control over the mental aspects of the disorder.

Experts believe that an issue with circadian rhythm may be a cause of NES. So bright light therapy may also have usefulness as a potential remedy.

In some cases, people use antidepressants to aid in the treatment process. You can also use Melatonin to promote a restful night’s sleep.  Relaxing at night can play an important role in alleviating Night Eating Syndrome symptoms. So yoga and meditation may also be useful treatment techniques.

Increased exercise can also be important when trying to treat NES. Regular exercise can help to establish healthy patterns and routines. And it can stimulate hunger during appropriate times. It can also play a significant role in promoting relaxation at night.

Night Eating Syndrome often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety or depression. So it is necessary to try to get to the root of these underlying factors. People commonly use food as a coping mechanism during stressful times. So taking the time to figure out potential stresses in work or personal life is beneficial.

Many professionals suggest engaging in self-care techniques. Examples including taking a walk to clear your head, meditating, and treating yourself to time at the spa. Other examples are eating dinner with friends, or just carving out time in your busy schedule to it down and read a book.

Other Health Issues

Night Eating Syndrome can be extremely disruptive to many parts of a person’s life.

People with NES have reported feeling high levels of distress about lack of sleep and weight gain. This is due to the characteristically emotional evening eating that goes along with the disorder. Night Eating Syndrome doesn’t necessarily lead to increased weight. But it is worth noting that more obese individuals suffer from NES than the rest of the general population.

Some oral health complications can also arise from this disorder. In some cases, people have experienced acid reflux as a symptom of nightly eating tendencies. Others have dealt with an increased number of cavities due to the nightly snacking without teeth brushing.

Conclusion

You might happen to be someone who can’t figure out how to stop eating at night. It could just be a bad habit or unintentional coping mechanism that you have formed. But there is also a chance that the underlying factor could be Night Eating Syndrome.

Remain aware of your evening habits. And if you believe that there is an issue, contact your health provider so that you can have a thorough discussion. People often ignore or misdiagnose NES. So the more you know about the condition, the better an advocate you can be for yourself.

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