Are You Eating in Your Sleep?

If you often wake up to crumbs in your bed and have no idea where they came from, or if there are dirty dishes on your kitchen counter and you don't recall leaving them there, you may suffer from nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder.

There are many names for overeating at night: nocturnal eating syndrome, night-eating syndrome, sleep-related eating, sleep-eating disorder, and nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder (NSRED). Officially, though, there are two distinct disorders that involve nighttime eating, and the difference between the two comes down to the night-eater's level of awareness.

Night eating syndrome, or nocturnal eating, is characterized by a lack of appetite early in the day, a progressively stronger appetite as the day goes on and, often, frequent nighttime awakenings in order to eat. According to University of Pennsylvania researchers, this disorder appears to be the result of a delay in the circadian rhythm that regulates food intake but not in the circadian rhythm that regulates sleep. In other words, your sleeping patterns are normal, but your eating patterns are not, so the timing of your meals is out of sync with your normal sleep/wake cycle. If you suffer from night eating syndrome, you consume most of your calories at the end of the day, and you may get out of bed in the middle of the night to eat something, but you are conscious of your eating habits.

If you have NSRED, or sleep-related eating, you eat in your sleep the same way some people walk in their sleep, without awareness. In fact, if you have NSRED, you are a sleepwalker as well, since you are getting from your bed to your kitchen to eat without any memory of the event. NSRED is considered a sleep disorder rather than an eating disorder and has been associated with sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. In addition to the increased risk of overeating and gaining weight, people with NSRED reportedly eat non-food items that are potentially dangerous, such as cleaning products and cigarettes.

Because it is such a rare condition, and because anyone who has a sleep-related eating disorder may be embarrassed by it or possibly not aware of it, you may find it difficult to get information about NSRED. If you suspect you have this or a similar condition, speak to your physician, who may be able to direct you to a sleep disorder specialist familiar with nighttime eating problems. Various medications have been studied that may be useful for treating nighttime eating disorders.



Howell, MJ, et al; "A Review of Nighttime Eating Disorders." Sleep Medicine Review. 2009 Feb; 13(1):23-34 Web. 21 April 2011

O'Reardon, JP, et al; "A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Sertraline in the Treatment of Night Eating Syndrome." American Journal of Psychiatry 763:893-898 May 2006 Web. 21 April 2011

Texas Christian University Daily Skiff: Awareness of Disorder May Hold Key for Those Who Eat in Sleep. 2003. Web 21 April 2011