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Night Eating Syndrome: Here’s All You Need To Know About It

Night Eating Syndrome - (Image Credit: Shutterstock)

Introduction

You might be one of those people, like millions of others, who find you are still gaining weight, no matter how much you diet or exercise. You continually punch into Google, “why can’t I stop eating” because you can see you aren’t losing weight.

That can be highly frustrating, but have you ever considered that you might be a secret nighttime nibbler? It could be just possible that you suffer from NES or night eating syndrome treatment.

What Is Night Eating Syndrome (NES)?

NES or Night Eating Syndrome is a condition that combines sleep problems as well as overeating at night. It is not binge eating, though. So, for instance, with NES, you would eat your dinner and then, later on, look for something else to eat.

People with NES don’t sleep well and believe they won’t be able to get back to sleep without eating something. NES is about disordered eating. A person with NES usually eats at least a quarter of their daily calories after their dinner time meal.

Do You Think You Have NES?

If you have this eating disorder test, you might notice:

  • A lack of appetite in the morning. That would be from eating through the night.
  • You suffer from insomnia at least 4 or 5 times a week.
  • You have a depressive-type mood that deteriorates in the evening.

As mentioned above, NES is different from BED (Binging Eating Disorder). How to stop binge eating is a desire of those who suffer from NES and BED. However, with NES, you are more likely to eat smaller amounts right through the night. NES is also different from NSRED (Nocturnal Sleep-Related Eating Disorder). That’s when you eat while you are sleeping. With NES, you aren’t sleeping because you can remember what you ate the night before. For BED, fortunately, there is binge eating disorder treatment.

How Common Is NES?

Suffers from NES

NES has been noted and described back in 1955 already, although it did not receive a lot of attention from researchers until today. Many people with NES suffer from insomnia. That’s why the lines can be blurred when it comes to classification.

About one in every hundred people suffers from NES, so you can see that it is not uncommon. When they visit a doctor or therapist, they usually ask “Why can’t I stop eating?

NES is found more in people who are anxious, depressed, overweight, and suffer from other eating disorders – those who abuse alcohol and drugs. How to stop binge eating is something that most people with NES long for, even though NES and BED are two separate eating disorders.

What’s The Difference Between NES And SRED (Sleep-Related Eating Disorder?

  • NES is mainly about disordered eating. SRED is mainly a sleeping disorder.
  • NES occurs with several interruptions with sleeping. SRED often occurs with other sleep disorders.
  • With NES, people are aware of eating through the night. With SRED, people eat while they are asleep.
  • Studies show that central nervous system serotonin modulation could be an effective night eating syndrome treatment for NES. For SRED treatment, the anti-seizure medication, Topiramate[1] could be effective to treat it.

  • Doctors think that NES might be related to issues with the sleep-wake cycle, possibly also because of hormones. Some medications can cause SRED.

Is There A Difference Between Night Eating Syndrome And Binge Eating Disorder?

Some studies suggest that people with BED (Binge Eating Disorder) are more likely to be worried about their weight, eating, and body shape. How to stop binge eating is a big yearning of theirs because you can eat with a loss of control than those with NES (Night Eating Syndrome). People with NES eat ordinary portion sizes at night.

Even though both these disorders are connected with disordered eating, as well as anxiety and depression, it appears to be strong in people with BED. NES and BED are both sleeping disorders, but they are two distinct syndromes. They are treated similarly by psychological, psychosocial, and medical means.

Is Night Eating Syndrome Genetic?

NES can run in families, and some researchers believe that Night Eating Syndrome might have genetic roots. Other case studies, as well as surveys, find that Night Eating Syndrome can run in families because the researchers are starting to identify the specific genes that could be involved[2]. It is the genes that keep the bodily eating schedules in sync with the bodily sleep rhythms. When these genes mutate, they might be playing a role in Night Eating Syndrome. So, read here about how genes are responsible for our eating and sleeping patterns.

What Are The Symptoms Of Night Eating Syndrome?

Symptoms Of Night Eating Syndrome

Those that suffer from Night Eating Syndrome might be obese and overweight. They feel that they have no control over their eating behavior. How to stop binge eating is their longing as they eat in secret.

They believe they will sleep better if they have eaten. They feel remorseful and shameful for this behavior, as well, and hide the food away out of embarrassment or shame. They eat quickly and feel a loss of control over this way of eating.

NES people even eat when they aren’t hungry. They will continue to eat even when they are full, feeling embarrassed by the quantity of food they eat. They wonder “Why can’t I stop eating?” To hide their embarrassment, they will eat alone. NES people often feel depressed, guilty, and disgusted with themselves.

Usually, the majority of NES people eat most of their food during the night, eating around 25% of their daily calories. Then they eat just a little or even nothing in the morning. It is also because they don’t sleep solidly, so they wake up during the night, filling up snacks. Not only is it about disordered eating, but disordered sleeping too.

Typical Characteristics And Symptoms Of NES People:

  • They are usually overweight – they often ask “Why can’t I stop eating”.
  • They have failed at dieting
  • They are depressed and filled with anxiety
  • They abuse substances or drugs
  • They are concerned about their shape and weight – they will look up ‘how to stop binge eating in desperation
  • They have a negative self-image
  • They are aware that they eat during the night, at least twice a week. They will skip breakfast a few times in the week because they are not hungry
  • They have cravings for food after dinner and during the night
  • They battle to fall asleep and stay asleep many nights of the week
  • They believe they must eat to fall asleep

What Causes NES?

There isn’t any definite cause for NES. However, there are a couple of things that might cause NES:

1. Problems With The Circadian Rhythms

Those with NES seem to have disruptions in their circadian rhythms. It is the biological process that regulates eating and sleeping patterns according to the natural light and darkness cycles. Food consumption and appetite for humans tend to correspond with their waking hours.

Meals for humans are usually eaten between the hours of early morning and early evening. People with NES usually keep a normal sleeping cycle within the normal hours, but they display a pattern of delayed intake of food, i.e. disordered eating.

One study shows that those people with NES consume 56% of their calories between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. compared to people who do not have NES consume only 15% of their calories at this time.

2. Daytime Dieting

NES may occur from failed dieting[3] when people reduce their food intake from dieting during the day, and the body is in a state of physical deprivation. Later on, a normal response of a need to eat will arise at night from the restriction of food during the day, and this pattern of eating at night can become ingrained.

3. Other Causes To Consider

People get hormone imbalances which can disrupt eating patterns and contribute to NES. This syndrome can also arise in response to a person staying up late at night and eating, for example, as is commonly seen with college students. Once a habit becomes ingrained, as mentioned above, it can be hard to break.

How Do Healthcare Providers Diagnose NES?

Diagnose NES

Night Eating Syndrome (NES) is currently classified as Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED) by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders[4].

How Is NES Diagnosed?

Your doctor may diagnose you with Night Eating Syndrome (NES) after he has asked you several questions about your eating and sleeping habits. Also, he might do an eating disorder test by asking you to fill in a detailed questionnaire. Some doctors will also ask you to take a sleep test, it is called polysomnography.

Being diagnosed with NES will entail you having overeating at night for at least 3 months. Remember, your eating and sleeping patterns cannot be found due to substance abuse, medical disorder, medications, or other psychiatric issues. Your treatment will be different from binge eating disorder treatment.

Treatment For Night Eating Syndrome

Let’s look at the night eating syndrome treatment available:

1. PSYCHOTHERAPY

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)[5] ranks as one of the most successful treatments when it comes to eating disorders – such as binge eating disorder treatment and treatment for NES. It targets a person’s underlying thought patterns that contribute to NES. Psychological treatment will include both self-monitoring and psycho-education about the condition. The dieting behavior is usually reduced, and typical behavioral interventions common to NES include meal planning and structuring regular eating[6].

Night eating syndrome treatment will focus on shifting eating patterns to earlier in the day. It will align better with the person’s sleeping and waking cycles. Breakfast will also be implemented so that eating patterns can be reset. Breaking the NES cycle of eating can be challenging as the person continues with the night eating, but it can be done gradually, slowly increasing the morning intake of food until an adequate breakfast is being consumed regularly.

Dysfunctional beliefs reinforce NES-type behavior. A person with a NES is usually convinced that they can only fall asleep if they eat. They will believe that their evening anxiety can only be managed with food. The therapists will be able to identify strategies that target specific behaviors and thoughts. It might be difficult to break the pattern of night eating, whether for NES sufferers or in binge eating disorder treatment and other eating disorders. Sleep hygiene strategies that are used for treating insomnia, like sticking to consistent morning and bedtime waking times, will be important.

2. PHOTOTHERAPY

Phototherapy is light exposure, and it is similar to that used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Bright light therapy is thought to affect melatonin. It is a hormone that helps to regulate circadian rhythms. NES patients will then be exposed to phototherapy bright light in the morning. The treatment is aimed at targeting circadian rhythms. It attempts to try and reset the body clock by using light. Unfortunately, there is not much formal research on this approach, although it has been proven effective in a couple of case studies.

How Do Providers Treat NES?

Treat NES

Healthcare providers usually recommend a combination of night-eating syndrome treatment. It includes antidepressant medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, and techniques to correct the sleeping and eating cycles.

An eating disorder test will reveal several treatment approaches that health providers will apply. These include pharmacologic treatment, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), muscle relaxation strategies, and light therapy. These studies and research are aimed at improving all NES symptoms, particularly evening hyperphagia[7], nocturnal eating episodes, mood symptoms, and weight loss, because of the complexity of diagnosing NES, with the accompanying mood and sleep problems, treatment is individualized to the patient.

Can I Prevent NES?

You may be able to prevent NES with these fantastic tips:

  • Choosing Healthy Foods: Keep healthy foods at home, and get rid of processed foods and foods that are high in sugar and fat.
  • Practicing Good Sleep Hygiene: Keep your bedroom at comfortable temperatures, sleeping at the same time each day if possible. Avoid electronics and caffeine before you go to bed.
  • Check Your Mental Health: Try to manage your stress levels with deep breathing and meditation. If you do happen to feel sad, anxious, or alone, there are counselors and wonderful therapists that can help you manage your emotions and improve your mood.
  • Staying Active During The Day: Regular exercising in physical activities during the day will certainly help you sleep better at night.

When’s The Right Time To See My Healthcare Provider About NES?

It’s a good idea to see your healthcare provider if you notice you have symptoms of NES. He will help you with an eating disorder test to evaluate and check your health. Perhaps you have a health condition that is keeping you awake at night.

Don’t hesitate to talk to someone if you feel sad and anxious, even with suicidal thoughts, at the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. They provide confidential and free emotional support if you feel ‘desperate’ or in distress.

They are available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day – around the clock. Don’t hold back your symptoms to your healthcare providers because everything you tell them helps to provide the most effective treatment for you.

What Is Eating Disorder Symbol?

That’s the logo of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)[8]. It is shaped similarly to a heart. For others, it also looks like the outline of the female body. The heart shows loving concern for people who suffer from eating disorders. The female body represents acceptance of all body sizes and shapes and a healthy body image.

Some people look at the eating disorder symbol and think of it as representing recovery and strength, which is what it is all about. Each one has its interpretation, but many people consider the smaller line to represent the eating disorder. The larger line they believe shows courage and strength for those in recovery.

Did you know that the Eating Disorder Symbol has resonated with quite a few high-profile celebrities? Demi Lovato, for instance, revealed that she had personally painted the NEDA eating disorder symbol on her coffee mug. She has had her struggles with drug addiction and bulimia and understands the important role symbols can shape how we view and react to people with eating disorders.

Frequently Asked Questions

It is not a disorder unless you show the symptoms of the different eating disorders. Sometimes people eat at night because they are restricted from eating during the day. It leads them to be hungry at night.

Sometimes sheer boredom or eating out of habit can cause you to eat at night. Night-time eating has been linked to some eating disorders, including binge eating disorder (BED), as well as night eating syndrome (NES).

NES also occurs with interrupted sleep or insomnia. If NES is untreated, it can make it difficult for anyone to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. We are giving you a description of six more common types of eating disorders and symptoms so you can recognize and see if you fall into any of them.

Night-time eating, as we mentioned above, might be the cause of a very restricted diet during the day, leading to wanting to eat at night. It is because you will probably be hungry. Boredom and eating out of habit also might be the reasons why you might eat at night.

Causes of night eating may vary, and some students, for instance, who are high achievers will often work and study throughout the day. Then they will overcompensate by eating a lot at night.

Another reason why some people might eat excessively at night is that they are highly stressed, depressed, or anxious, and then you get those whose hormonal patterns might not be in sync, and they eat when they shouldn’t and don’t eat when they should.

If you have NES or night-eating syndrome, you will know how you feel the need to eat between dinner and your bedtime. You will know, too, that you suffer from insomnia at least four or five nights a week.

You have the belief that you need to eat to fall asleep or get back to sleep. If you are depressed, your mood is likely to get worse in the night hours. A person with a NES has frequent sleep interruptions.

They wake up a few times during the night – making them feel more depressed and ashamed. When they do get up in the morning, they aren’t hungry to eat breakfast time. It is because they have eaten so much during the night.

Try these excellent tips:

  • Space Your Meals Out Throughout The Day: Try and space your meals even if you aren’t hungry at breakfast time, even if you aren’t hungry in the morning or during the day. Don’t force yourself to eat entire meals in the beginning. Just try and introduce light snacks at mealtimes. Then create a relaxing nighttime routine of drinking tea, reading, meditating, and stuff you find calming. Turn off all your electronic stuff well before you go to bed.
  • Get Light To Regulate Your Circadian Rhythm: Go outside in the early morning sun and limit the light exposure in the evening. You could also take melatonin. It’s a natural hormone that will help to regulate your sleeping and waking cycles[9]. Discuss taking melatonin with your healthcare provider.

  • Educate Yourself About NES And Sleep Hygiene: Learn about muscle relaxation techniques and practice them to calm anxiety and stress. Seek support from groups that are connected to eating disorders by doing eating disorder test/s; or joining anxiety and stress groups.
  • Eat Well-Balanced Meals Throughout The Day: Never forget good quality, healthy exercises, such as walking, hiking, or joining a running group. You will nourish your body with fresh air, which can help to improve your sleep. All these tips can help you take better control of your sleeping and eating cycles. It is not guaranteed with these self-care tips that you will overcome night eating syndrome, essentially, if it occurs with mental health issues, substance use disorder, or other eating disorders.
  • Can Night Eating Syndrome Cause Weight Gain?: Naturally, if you do eat food in large quantities late in the evening or during the night every time you wake up, you will find that it is easy to put on weight. For many people, the amount of food that they eat at night can far outweigh the limited amount of calories eaten during the day. If you feel bad about overeating, whether emotionally or physically, you will also feel the after-effects that will influence your weight in unexpected ways. The number of calories you consume by day and at night are key players in how much you will weigh. Eating most of your calories at night is the best insurance for gaining weight because it creates havoc with your hormones and damages your body’s biological clock.

  • Eat Regular Meals: To prevent eating late at night, try not to skip meals. When you skip meals, you run the risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). You will also increase the urge to overeat later on. Try and aim at eating three balanced meals a day with an afternoon snack.
  • Remove The Trigger Foods: Don’t buy foods or keep foods in your home that you love as if you are preparing to eat at night. Once you have finished them little by little, avoid purchasing them again because if they are not there, you can’t eat them, right? Restock your kitchen with healthy foods.
  • Create New Habits: A good way of preventing late-night eating is to do some exercise after dinner. Go for a walk, a run, ride a bike or join a gym. Relaxing techniques are also an excellent idea. Take a warm bath, read, or even do yoga for sheer relaxation. Paint the NEDA eating disorder symbol on your mug to encourage you to control NES.

Conclusion

In the USA, there are around six million people who suffer from night-eating syndrome (NES). The experts believe that more than 33% of people are morbidly obese people. Morbidly obese people are those that weigh more than 100 or more pounds, and they are affected by NES.

At the core of this syndrome are a bunch of behavioral patterns that have symptoms that can last for a few months. People with NES often wonder and ask “why can’t I stop eating?” But it makes sense because if they have NES, it’s all about ongoing eating that can go on through the night.

NES isn’t due to hunger; it’s more likely to be due to eating, sleeping, and mood disorders – so says Albert Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania’s Weight & Eating Disorders Program. If Demi Lovato personally painted the NEDA eating disorder symbol on her mug to help herself along, you do it too – you can conquer NES!

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In keeping with our strict quality guidelines, we only cite academic research institutions, established health journals, or peer-reviewed studies in our content. You will be able to find links to these sources by clicking the numbers in parentheses (1, 2, etc.) that appear throughout our content.

At no time do we advise any of our readers to use any of our content as a substitute for a one-on-one consultation with a doctor or healthcare professional.

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All Health Web Magazine content is thoroughly reviewed and/or fact-checked by a team of health industry experts to ensure accuracy.

In keeping with our strict quality guidelines, we only cite academic research institutions, established health journals, or peer-reviewed studies in our content. You will be able to find links to these sources by clicking the numbers in parentheses (1, 2, etc.) that appear throughout our content.

At no time do we advise any of our readers to use any of our content as a substitute for a one-on-one consultation with a doctor or healthcare professional.

We invite you to contact us regarding any inaccuracies, information that is out of date or any otherwise questionable content that you find on our sites via our feedback form.