Is grabbing a midnight snack really such a big deal? For many, occasionally giving in to a late night craving for chocolate or some leftovers costs them no more than an extra 10 minutes on the treadmill and a little bit of guilt. But for others, midnight snacking is a nightly ritual that goes far beyond simple cravings and minor bouts of guilt.
Night Eating Syndrome (NES) is an eating disorder that compels those afflicted to eat during the late evening and early morning hours (9pm-5am). Someone with NES will snack uncontrollably before bed and/or wake up (often multiple times a night) with an intense urge to eat. This frustrating disorder causes individuals to consume sometimes thousands of calories during the nighttime hours. They are left feeling exhausted, depressed, and helpless.
They do not wake up with physical hunger but rather with an impulse to eat. Some describe it as a zombie feeling or as a robotic/automated behavior. Others report feeling numb, nothing, anxious, angry, or depressed. And It is unlikely that you will find a nocturnal nosher tossing a salad or juicing some kale and kiwi, those who regularly stare into the fridge at 2 a.m. will most likely be snacking on something fatty, sugary, and starchy.
So, if after the sun goes down you are drawn to the refrigerator light in the same way a moth would be, then you may want to consider this advice.
- see a medical doctor
- find a therapist that has experience with eating disorders
- be prepared to “dig”
- notice that the “angel” is missing
- confuse NES with sleepwalking
- be surprised if you sometimes eat strange combinations of food
- be ashamed
Sleep apnea, thyroid dysfunction, hormone imbalance, etc. all play a part in appetite and sleep patterns. It is important to initially seek the advice and guidance of a medical doctor so as to rule out any possible physiological problems.
If the above description sounds familiar then chances are that you are not struggling with a physiological problem but with a psychological one. It will be helpful for you to talk with someone who has experience with the nuances of eating disorders. It is important that you work with someone who is genuine, knowledgeable and leaves you feeling heard and understood.
NES can be successfully treated with psychotherapy. But keep in mind that the most effective form of psychotherapy for this issue will require you to “dig” around in the past. Your relationship with food started when you were a day old and has been developing ever since. Whether you consciously know it or not your nighttime battle with food has more to do with your past then what you ate (or didn’t eat) for lunch this afternoon.
We have all heard the phrase ”I have a devil and an angel sitting on my shoulder.” You know, those characters that represent the “good” and “bad” parts of you who always seem to be duking it out. Have you ever wondered where the angel went when you’re building a BLT at 3 a.m.? It’s like she’s not even there! It is important to recognize that you actually do not have as much self control when you are drowsy. There is a part of you that wants to eat and that part has a lot more pull when the angel is sleeping.
Please do not put off getting the help you need. If you have NES, you are probably physically exhausted and feeling helpless, ashamed, and depressed. Consuming large amounts of calories in the evening and/or waking up during the night can have a profound impact on your self-esteem, functioning, and productivity. It is very important that you get help so you begin the process of understanding the origins of your struggles as soon as possible.
NES is not the same as sleep walking. Those with NES are technically awake and can remember their eating episodes, although not always clearly.
Sometimes people will restrict access to “bad” food with the hope that they will not snack or wake up and eat. Unfortunately for some with NES this may lead to the creation of some odd concoctions. The urge to consume is powerful and will sometimes cause a person to eat what’s there, for example one might eat straight sugar, flour, butter, or a combination of other things.
Uncontrollably consuming large amounts or strange combinations of food throughout the night is not something many are comfortable talking about. Similar to other eating disorders, secrecy is the norm. Please try and accept that there is a “why” to this that goes beyond a mere lack of self-discipline. The sooner you recognize that the sooner you can address the real problem.
Night Eating Syndrome is a real problem for many people. If this resonates with you please seek assistance with a licensed professional. Even if you don’t fit the description exactly but you believe that your relationship with food is bordering on dysfunctional, please consider talking with a therapist.