Eating at Night (Nocturnal Eating Syndrome)

A young lady, Melissa, came to see me in the sleep clinic because she is frustrated with nightly insomnia. When we talked about her evening and nighttime habits, it appears that she eats a heavy meal at night about 1 to 2 hours of bedtime. She comes home, sits in front of the TV and eats. She does not eat breakfast and in the morning; her first meal is 1 pm. Her second and largest meal is dinner which includes pasta, rice and potatoes chips. She also suffers from depression and low self-esteem. She has trouble falling asleep because her stomach is full and sometimes she wakes up because her mouth is source from food reflux. She knows that she shouldn’t eat that much at night, but she says she cannot help it and she feels addicted to food. Food calms her down. She feels guilty though. She really craves food at night. She gained 60 lbs over the past 5 years and she feels tired and sluggish during the day.                                                                                        

Melissa has Nighttime Eating Syndrome (NES). Individuals like Melissa seek food to calm their anxiety. The reason they seek a high carbohydrate diet is because carbohydrates increase tryptophan which then converts to brain serotonin (a calming brain neurotransmitter). A recent study from Italy published in the May issue of 2011 in Rivista di Psichiatria found that the majority of patients who were studied were depressed and lacked social support.

NES must be distinguished from sleep-related eating disorder where individuals get up in the middle of the night (sleep walk in a semi-conscious state) go to the kitchen and eat without realizing they are doing it.

Treatment

  • Plan your meals. Make set times for meals and stick with them.
  • Make your last meal at least 3 to 4 hours before bedtime.
  • Increase your carbohydrate intake during the daytime and eat more protein in dinner. Eat more salad with meals to fill you up and provide you with nutrients.
  • Your body will crave carbohydrates if you don’t eat it. The best way to deal with this is to eat the healthy carbohydrates early in the day with fruits so your body will not crave them late at night.
  • Drink water during the day. Stay well hydrated. Keep your stomach full with liquid. It will curb your need to eat.
  • Habits are hard to break. Set a date where you will start eating no later than a specific time at night and stick to it. When you start feeling better and sleeping better, the good habit prevails.
  •  Seek social support
  • Exercise in the evening to combat stress and anxiety and to increase your motivation. Exercise also help your weight.
  • Eat a light snack in the later afternoon (around 4 pm) to curb your appetite for dinner, so you can enjoy a light and healthy dinner (more salad) instead to binge eating. Make your snack a fruit. Stay away from junk food.
  • If you get hungry at night, drink water and try hard candy. You can also eat carrots or cucumber instead of a sandwich.
  • Brush your teeth after dinner and close the kitchen. You are done. Make this a habit.
  • Address any issues with depression and anxiety. Seek counseling if you feel this is causing lots of trouble in your life.