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Night Eating Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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  • 0:01 Night Eating Syndrome
  • 1:51 Causes
  • 2:47 Risks
  • 3:19 Treatments
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

We all enjoy an occasional midnight snack, but for someone suffering from night eating syndrome, late night eating happens on a regular basis and makes up 25% or more of their daily caloric intake. Learn about the causes, risks and treatments in this lesson.

Night Eating Syndrome

Most of us have a favorite dessert or treat that we look forward to eating. For me, it's the ice cream cake that I get every year to help me celebrate my birthday. With just the right combination of creamy ice cream, rich fudge and crunchy cookie pieces, this is a treat I can't wait to enjoy! And, the best part is there's always leftovers, which means I can have another piece later in the evening.

If you're like me, this occasional late night indulgence is part of normal life, yet for some, nighttime eating is a regular occurrence that leads to health issues and feelings of low self-esteem. It's estimated that anywhere from 1.5% to ten percent of the population suffers from night eating syndrome (NES), which is defined as an eating disorder in which 25% or more of an individual's daily caloric intake is consumed after the evening meal. If you have this disorder, you will find that it's characterized by symptoms like waking at night to eat or feeling as if you cannot go back to sleep unless you eat something. As you might guess, this leaves you with little or no appetite in the morning.

With night eating syndrome, it's important to note that you are awake and fully aware that you are eating. This awareness is what differentiates night eating syndrome from sleep-related eating disorder (SRED), in which an individual gets out of bed and consumes often large quantities of food without conscious awareness. Think of sleep-related eating disorder as eating while you are sleep-walking. Because the person is still technically asleep when the eating happens, SRED is considered more of a sleep disorder than an eating disorder.

Causes

People dealing with night eating syndrome may feel ashamed of their behavior, yet feel as if they have no control over their late night eating pattern. While a single direct cause has not been found, it has been thought that night eating syndrome is possibly due to a delay in the circadian rhythm when it comes to food intake.

Your circadian rhythm is that clock in your head that runs on a 24-hour cycle. When it's running on time, it helps keep your sleeping and eating patterns on track, but when it's not, these patterns get disrupted. There is also speculation that NES could be linked to lower nocturnal levels of melatonin and leptin, which are hormones that regulate sleep and hunger, respectively. Onset might also be related to stress and even extreme dieting that requires a strict restriction of calories during the day.

Risks

Now we know from basic nutrition that when you consume more calories than your body needs you gain weight. Therefore, it's easy to see that one of the risks of night eating syndrome is obesity. Because a person with NES will often awake at night to eat, it's also easy to see that NES increases the risk of insomnia. And, the feelings of shame and guilt that accompany this disorder make it easy to see that people with NES will be more inclined to suffer from depression and anxiety.

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