An Introduction to Night-Eating Syndrome
Eating disorders aren’t really about food.
People who suffer from bulimia, anorexia nervosa, binge-eating or NES use food as a means of coping with emotional pain. Unlike most other psychiatric problems, eating disorders come with profound feelings of guilt and shame. Because the physical body is involved, they are deeply personal.
Fortunately, disorders like NES are preventable and treatable.
How Is NES Different From Binge-Eating?
NES is compulsive, like binge-eating, but it’s distinguished by an uncontrollable impulse to eat heavily during what should be normal sleeping hours.
People who suffer from NES eat lightly or not at all during the day. Anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of their daily calories are consumed at night, perhaps hundreds of calories at a time. They usually store food in the bedroom or, as the disease progresses, keep it close beside them on the floor or in the bed.
Like binge-eaters, they consume large amounts of food very quickly and keep on eating long after they’re full. These nighttime episodes leave them feeling guilty and deeply ashamed. Professional lives and personal relationships are usually impacted. Co-occurring psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety, substance abuse and depression, are common. Night eaters who are depressed typically hit their lowest point in the wee hours.
People with NES typically eat twice every night. They fully wake up to eat and keep eating until they feel they can go back to sleep. Their eating binges occur at least three nights per week. Most people develop NES in their 20s or early 30s.
Eating patterns that could be warning signs of NES include:
- Eating small amounts or fasting during the day
- Compulsively eating large amounts after dinner
- Constantly craving carbohydrates
- Thinking about food instead of going to sleep
- Eating or storing snacks in the bedroom
- Being secretive about your eating habits
- Eating when you’re not hungry or continuing to eat after you’re satisfied
- Consuming large amounts of food in one sitting
- Feeling ashamed, depressed or guilty after you eat
How Common Is NES?
Approximately 1-2 percent of the population has NES, so it is more common than bulimia or anorexia. It’s slightly more prevalent in men. The disorder is on the rise, particularly on college campuses. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, 4 percent of college students had eating patterns that met the definition of NES.
Exact numbers are hard to pin down because NES may be confused with another problem, sleep-related eating disorder. People with SRED remain fast asleep during binges and don’t remember them until they discover empty dishes or crumbs the next morning.
Is it Physically Dangerous?
Binge-eating at night can be quite serious. Aside from lost hours of sleep, it adversely affects blood pressure, weight, lipid profiles and body mass index.
Of all psychiatric problems, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. While NES is not as dangerous as some, it does threaten physical health. Serious cases could result in:
- Morbid obesity
- Chronic insomnia or sleep apnea
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Gastrointestinal diseases
- Gallbladder problems
- Muscle pain or achy joints
- Heart problems
Is NES a Psychological Addiction?
Like other food-related disorders, night eating usually has underlying emotional roots. People compulsively eat to ease their loneliness, numb their sadness or relieve their stress.
Almost everyone, at times, eats for the wrong reasons. Meals are usually an integral part of holidays, weddings and birthday celebrations. Grieving people seek the comfort of food after funerals. Occasions happy and sad are observed with a memorable meal.
People with NES, however, feel that they can’t cope with circumstances any other way than to binge-eat at night. It’s an irresistible compulsion, their go-to strategy, when things go wrong in life.
Episodes are always followed by feelings of shame, disgust and self-loathing, the very emotions that food was supposed to cure. In this way, NES is a vicious cycle of addiction.
Very few night bingers remember the tastes or textures of the foods they ate. It’s like eating on auto-pilot, with little awareness of mechanics like chewing or swallowing. Their nighttime meals are never physically or emotionally satisfying.
Night Eating Syndrome Causes
Causes of night eating are not wholly understood, but circadian rhythms were interrupted somewhere along the way. Circadian rhythms are mental, physical and behavioral changes governed by a 24-hour cycle of light and darkness. They are behind the impulse to go to sleep at night, for example. Emotional trauma could alter brain functions that are triggered by these rhythms.
Some scientists have also suggested that hormones, which normally regulate appetite and mood, might be to blame; an imbalance could cause night-binging. Others point to elevated levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This chemical influences both sleep and appetite, as well as sexual desire, memory and learning.
Heredity and culture may also contribute.
Night Eating Syndrome Treatment
NES, like other food-related addictions, is an isolating condition. Victims are usually secretive about food and unwilling to eat with others. Even if they know about it, close friends, family members and spouses are likely to see NES as a lack of self-control.
It’s almost impossible to control compulsive eating patterns without treatment. That’s why recovery from NES starts with admitting there’s a problem and seeking professional help.
Any qualified mental health professional can assure you that eating disorders indicate uncovered emotional problems. Learning to recognize psychological triggers is paramount to healing. The idea is not to manage symptoms, but to root out causes and learn to manage your feelings about them.
You may be referred to a nutritionist who can change your diet to reestablish hormonal balance. Most patients with NES are encouraged to keep a food diary or journal about their triumphs and setbacks. Cognitive behavior therapy will help you correct bad eating patterns and wrong thinking about food. You may join a peer support group for ongoing care and support.
Night Eating Syndrome Prevention
Am I at Risk of Developing an Eating Disorder?
Better education about eating disorders, such as finding out if you’re at risk, is the first safeguard to avoiding them.
While no two eating disorders are alike, all share some common risk factors that include:
- Being female
- Having one or more blood relatives with eating disorders
- Having another psychiatric issue, such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Having a strong compulsion to diet even after reaching ideal weight
- Being the victim of trauma or violence, especially sexual assault or abuse
- Adjusting poorly to a major life transition, such as moving, losing a job or ending a romantic relationship
- Being teased or criticized about your weight or eating habits
- Having poor body image, perfectionism or low self-esteem
- Compulsively eating to feel better when you’re sad or angry
Doesn’t Everyone Eat to Feel Better?
Eating out of emotional need is normal now and then.
From birth, feeding is an expression of love and nurturing. Food not only satisfies hunger, but it cheers people up after a bad day. It’s not called “comfort food” for nothing, and peoples’ strongest ties to food are psychological ones.
However, when people rely on eating as their only means of dealing with problems or improving their mood, they are in danger of becoming compulsive eaters.
Most of the time, you should be eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. If you find yourself regularly eating outside those boundaries, analyze your feelings. Challenge yourself to deal with your emotions rather than swallow them.
Changing Your Mind About Your Body and Your Food
If you’re falling into bad eating habits, you may need to correct the way you think about eating and body image. Asking yourself the following questions could steer you toward a better attitude and relationship with food:
- Does my weight automatically determine how fulfilled or happy I’ll be?
- Am I worthless, lazy or a bad person if I gain weight?
- Do I categorize foods as “good” or “bad?”
- Do I judge or value myself and others on the basis of physical appearance?
- Do I pay too much attention to media messages about the “ideal” body?
- Do I respect and appreciate myself for my inner characteristics?
- Does the way I feel about my body determine my mood every day?
- Do I associate with people who value and support me?
If your emotional life is healthy, your body will be, too. Love and appreciate what’s on the inside, and don’t stress over occasional weight gain or loss.
If you’re worried about how you handle your emotions and want to talk to someone about NES, don’t hesitate to call for help if. You deserve to enjoy your food in good physical and mental health.