Night eating syndrome (NES), is a largely understudied eating disorder that is characterized by late-night eating and disrupted sleep.
Relatively rare, the condition is estimated to impact slightly over 1% of the population and is equally prevalent in both men and women.
What triggers NES differs on a case by case basis. It could develop habitually due to late night or all-night work schedules. It could be an unforeseen consequence of skipping daytime meals as part of a diet. It could also be a response to stress or a consequence hormone imbalance.
There is even some evidence that NES is linked to genetics and in particular a defect in the gene PER1 that controls our body clock. However, more research is required to establish the true extent of this link.
Whatever the cause, NES is a serious condition with potentially serious consequences for the sufferer.
Individuals with NES are often overweight or obese, making them far more susceptible to health problems including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and a variety of cancers. But what exactly are the symptoms of NES? Below we have a look at five of the common identifies…
The Urge to Eat at Night
The main symptom of NES is the uncontrollable need to eat at night. Night, in this case being defined as the hours after dinner and before breakfast the following day.
NES sufferers often consume a relatively large amount of food between 8 pm and 6 am. Exactly how much can range from a quarter to well over a half of an individual’s entire daily caloric intake.
While NES can share some similarities with Binge Eating Disorder (BED), which is characterized by individuals eating large quantities in short amounts of time, the two are distinct conditions and should not be confused with one another.
While sufferers of NES can also be binge eaters and vice versa, NES is defined more by the uncontrollable need to eat at night – not by the quantity of food. In fact, the quantities consumed at any one time don’t need to be large.
It is more common for night eaters to ‘graze’ on small amounts of food throughout the evening, maybe waking to eat something small before returning to sleep, only to repeat the action again, and maybe even again before the night is through.
The Inability to Sleep
Insomnia or poor sleep is the second major symptom that defines NES.
Individuals with the condition often suffer from the inability to get to drop off sleep, or alternatively, they sleep poorly and frequently wake throughout the night.
These bouts of wakefulness are when the sufferer is likely to consume food. In many cases, individuals feel strongly that their eating controls their ability to fall to sleep. If they don’t eat, they can’t sleep.
In this way individuals with NES often see their night eating as a form of self-medication for their insomnia.
Getting into healthy sleep patterns (as discussed on the Sleep Advisor) can have a positive impact on NES but it is often hard for sufferers to break the cycle and do so without professional help.
Lack of Appetite in the Morning
As a result of relatively high nighttime consumption, a common secondary symptom of NES is that sufferers have little to no appetite for food in the morning.
Skipping breakfast and sometimes lunch, in turn, makes individuals more likely to eat heavily in the latter half of the day. An unfortunate cycle that propagates the condition.
A Depressed Mood that Gets Worse During Evening Hours
NES is strongly linked to depression. In individuals with the condition, this feeling is reported to increase as day turns to night. Research indicates that this may indicate a distinct form of depression.
The ‘usual’ pattern experienced by individuals who suffer from depression is for their negative feelings to be more pronounced in the early part of the day, with symptoms lessening as the day goes on. With NES sufferers the exact opposite is often true.
As with other eating disorders, sufferers of NES suffer from low self-esteem and will often feel tense, disgust, distress and/or guilt while eating, or even discussing food. Often embarrassed by the amount they eat or their eating habits, sufferers typically eat alone to minimize their embarrassment.
Similar to other eating disorders, treating NES successfully involves educating sufferers about their condition, promoting a regular eating schedule, in addition to multiple complementary approaches, often combining a pharmacological approach with psychotherapy.
A number of studies have shown antidepressants to have an impact on the general quality of life of NES suffers. Leading to a lift in mood and with it increased control over eating patterns.
Similarly, cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to help in some cases, although as NES remains a relatively understudied disorder, the research conducted thus far on treatments remain inconclusive.
Despite first being identified as far back as 1955, NES remains a largely understudied eating disorder. The causes, symptoms, and treatments all require much further study.
What is certain, however, is that the noticing the warning signs of individuals suffering from the syndrome and the referral to a medical practitioner for evaluation is essential.