We all have experienced midnight cravings at some time during our lives. Moreover, we tend to hog onto snacks while relaxing at home and binge-watching. That way, wanting to grab a snack at night is pretty normal. However, for some people, this turns out to be repetitive behavior.
Do you binge food between dinner and bedtime? Do you overeat in the evening hours? Does food make you feel relaxed during the evening and at bedtime? If the answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘yes,’ then you’re experiencing Night Eating Syndrome (NES).
Don’t worry; you’re not alone; many people are affected by night eating syndrome. To help you know more about NES, in this article, we’ll cover the causes and symptoms along with tips on how you can treat this syndrome.
What is Night Eating Syndrome (NES)?
Night eating syndrome is an eating disorder that makes you eat excessively after dinner or even triggers you to wake up from sleep in the night to eat. People with NES long to eat in the middle of the night and feel that they won’t be able to sleep again if they don’t eat. For this reason, NES is also known as ‘nocturnal eating syndrome.’
Even if you had a good dinner, you’d still feel hungry before bedtime or while you sleep at night. Individuals suffering from NES skip breakfast, do not eat much during the day, and eat around 25% of their daily food intake after dinner. Hence, NES is ubiquitous in obese and diabetic patients. Due to NES, you’ll face sleep difficulties like insomnia and other health complications like early artery disease.
Symptoms of Night Eating Syndrome
Around 1.5% of the population suffer from NES and they may find it tricky to observe the symptoms as they feel eating food at midnight is no big deal. However, potential signs of night eating syndrome include:
- Eating large amounts of food at night that are high in calories, carbohydrates, or sugar.
- Not feeling hungry at breakfast or until later in the afternoon.
- Waking up twice a week in the middle of the night to eat.
- Mess in the kitchen or missing food.
- Eating rapidly and a loss of control over eating.
- Difficulty sleeping or restless sleep.
- Complete awareness of night-eating episodes and being able to recall them.
- Feeling distressed because of night hogging.
Individuals experiencing night eating syndrome often feel ashamed and guilty about their eating habits, and tend to eat alone to lessen their embarrassment.
Causes of Night Eating Syndrome
Well, there are no straightforward causes of NES, but experts believe that it can be due to delayed circadian food consumption patterns. The circadian rhythm controls when you feel hungry, tired, or sleepy. So when the rhythm is not functioning as it should, you might experience night eating syndrome. Some also point toward sleep-wake cycle issues and hormonal imbalances in the body.
Studies also show that low melatonin hormone levels in the body can cause the outbreak of NES. Even low levels of leptin hormone, which subdues appetite and increases metabolism, are known to trigger NES. In fact, leptin and glucocorticoids together limit the appetite in the body. Typically leptin is at low levels during night hours among night eaters, which cannot reduce the production of glucocorticoids. This stimulates excessive food intake, making people inclined towards binging at night, leading to NES.
Besides obese people, NES is very common among people suffering from depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Studies show that skewed body image and low self-esteem contribute significantly to NES, instigating night binging on comfort food.
How to Diagnose and Differentiate NES from Other Eating Disorders?
If you think you’re suffering from night eating syndrome, talk to your doctor. Along with asking general questions about your health and sleep patterns, the doctor will take standard diagnostic tests explicitly designed to detect night eating syndrome.
Night Eating Questionnaire (NEQ) or the Night Eating Diagnostic Scale (NEDS) are self-report ways to diagnose NES. The questionnaire contains 14 items that doctors can score on a Likert scale from zero to four, helping them evaluate behavioral and psychological symptoms of NES.
Night Eating Syndrome History and Inventory (NESHI) is a semi-structured interview and another way of diagnosing night eating syndrome. The interview analyses 24-hour food intake, retrospecting all meals and other food items, and sleeping patterns. Based on the responses, the doctor will determine whether ≥25% of the daily food intake was consumed after dinner and the number of nocturnal ingestions.
However, many confuse NES with binge eating and sleep-related eating disorders (SRED). But let us tell you, all three differ from each other.
Treatment of Night Eating Syndrome
While there is no sure-shot method to treat night eating syndrome, studies show that combining therapies and medication can help combat this eating disorder.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has helped treat NES as it targets the root cause of night eating syndrome and encourages adopting healthier habits. This therapy can help you reduce nighttime hogging and eat more during the day.
It also includes making breakfast as a part of your routine, maintaining a meal plan, getting rid of junk food and snacks, locking the refrigerator at night, or inculcating a habit of leaving notes in the kitchen. Indeed, implementing these steps might take time, so don’t expect early results.
Phototherapy involves making the person going through NES exposed to more light. As the melatonin hormone controls the circadian rhythms, bright light helps regulate this hormone and tries to make the body clock normal.
Antidepressants such as SSRIs counterpoise food cravings, stimulate calmness, and aid in melatonin production, promoting sleep. Similarly, other medications like dopaminergic drugs and anticonvulsants can help reduce NES episodes. Some doctors might even recommend melatonin supplements to make you fall asleep at night. However, we suggest consulting a doctor first before taking any of these medicines.
Besides therapies and medications, progressive muscle relaxation can help you be a morning person and eat more during morning hours. Nevertheless, weight training programs, deep breathing exercises, and nutritious foods can help you avoid eating at night.
Avoid Eating at Night
Neglecting NES can lead to other health problems like high cholesterol and blood pressure. Hence, it is imperative to avoid midnight munchings. You can prevent NES by adopting a healthy lifestyle and getting a restful sleep of seven to eight hours. But if your sleep gets frequently disturbed because your partner snores, you can use a smart anti-snoring solution like Smart Nora that detects snoring sounds and gently moves the pillow to stop them. It is compact, portable, and works in silence, fostering a better mood and peaceful nights.