Sleep eating disorder is not actually considered an eating disorder but a sleep disorder. Also known as nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder or NS-RED, it is a condition in which a person gets up during the night, consumes food, often a large quantity of food, without knowing it. It’s similar to sleep walking. The person has no memory of eating the food, or has only fragmentary memories, when they awaken.
When they awaken and discover the evidence, people often feel embarrassed or ashamed. They may be afraid they are losing their mind. They may deny it, even when confronted with evidence that they were in fact up eating during the night.
The foods consumed during episodes of nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder are usually high-fat, high-sugar “comfort” foods that people deny themselves during the day. However, they may also be bizarre combinations of foods, such as hotdogs dipped in peanut butter or raw bacon smeared with mayonnaise. Sometimes people eat non-food items, such as soap.
What Causes Sleep Eating Disorder?
No one knows for sure what causes sleep eating disorder. For some people, the problem is chronic, while for others it happens once or twice and then never occurs again. It tends to occur in people who are under a great deal of stress or who are experiencing a lot of anxiety.
People with a nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder sometimes have a history of alcohol or drug abuse. The often have a history of other sleep disorders, such as sleep walking, restless leg syndrome, or sleep apnea. Their sleep is fragmented and they are tired when they wake.
There is some evidence that people who took the prescription sleep aid Ambien ate in their sleep while under the influence of the medication. Other sleep aids may also contribute to the likelihood of this behavior.
How is Sleep Eating Disorder Treated?
Treatment for nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder begins with an evaluation at a sleep disorder center where brain activity is monitored during sleep. This will help identify any sleep disorders.
Medication can be useful, but sleeping pills should be avoided. They may actually increase the likelihood of night eating episodes, and also increase the amount of confusion and clumsiness during episodes, making injury more likely. Instead, it has been found that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (a type of antidepressant medication) have been useful in treating nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder. Since stress, anxiety, and depression may contribute to the cause of the disorder, treating these with medication may also help control the night eating episodes.
Anything that reduces stress and anxiety is also useful. This includes counseling, stress management classes, learning and practicing relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, and so on. Regular exercise may also help. Reducing consumption of alcohol and caffeine is also recommended.
There are also some “self-help” techniques people use. These can be used in conjunction with medical treatment but are not meant to be a substitute for medical care.
Many people find that night eating episodes happen less often if they play soft, rhythmic music at night. Some lock the refrigerator and cupboards at night. Others tie one end of a thread to one wrist and the other end to the bed frame so they wake themselves up if they get up and walk away from the bed. Any self-help technique must be used carefully and safely so that the person does not injure themselves in their sleep.
People with symptoms of sleep eating disorder are often afraid or ashamed to seek treatment. However, with treatment the disorder can be controlled. There is nothing shameful about it, and there is help available.