What is Night Eating Syndrome?

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It happens almost every night. I’ll wake up in the wee hours of the morning, craving something, anything to snack on. Although healthier snacks such as almonds or fresh fruit may be nearby, when these cravings hit, I typically find myself reaching for high-calorie, sugar-laden foods. “I just have a sweet tooth, that’s all,” used to be my response to any hints of guilt. But what was hidden underneath the eating patterns was a harmful condition I didn't even know existed:** Night Eating Syndrome (NES).**

The farthest back I can remember this pattern is college. Studying to get the highest grade left me rushing through lunches, loading up at dinners and then studying until another huge meal (usually a cheeseburger) close to 11pm. It’s embarrassing to recall now, but after all, it was college, and seemed like a great idea at the time. Unfortunately, I had shifted my eating patterns, which later led me to wake up for a “breakfast” of sorts in the middle of the night - and would keep me waking up for years.

What is night eating syndrome?

To put it plainly, it is an eating disorder - but the term, although startling, shouldn’t scare you from learning more. Night eating syndrome is mainly characterized by a,“delayed circadian pattern of food intake,” and in some cases, overeating at mealtime. However, contrary to binge eating disorder, those living with night eating disorder may not always experience a feeling of loss of control or consume large portions of food. The National Institute of Mental Health reports NES affects men and women equally and can account for 1.5 percent of the population.

What causes night eating syndrome?

There are varied reasons why night eating syndrome may develop, many of which are deceptively harmless at the onset. For some, night eating syndrome may be the body’s response to a new diet and reducing caloric intake throughout the day. The body signals to the brain that it needs food, leading a person to overconsume later on in the evening.

Night eating syndrome may also stem from late-night eating habits formed in college, which individuals are unable to break as they enter adulthood.

The syndrome has also been found in ‘high achievers,’ who push themselves to accomplish more at work or in life. These individuals may frequently ‘power through’ lunches without stopping to eat, or find eating patterns hinder their ability to socialize and manage responsibilities. This leads the individual to try to make up for lost meals later on in the evening or when alone, sometimes overeating. Solidifying this late-eating pattern may stem from a shift in the high achiever’s hormonal patterns, triggering the body’s ‘hunger feeling’ during parts of the day where it shouldn’t.

Risks of night eating syndrome

Aside from shifts in normal hormonal patterns, night eating syndrome is most often associated with unhealthy weight gain. This is especially true when the syndrome may feel out of the person’s control. A person with night eating syndrome may become overweight or develop obesity, and as a result suffer from comorbidities such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Experts have also noted that a history of substance abuse, depression or sleep issues makes a person more likely to develop night eating syndrome.

How can I tell if I may have night eating syndrome?

Experiencing some or all of the following may be signs of night eating syndrome and warrant a conversation with your doctor:

  • Being overweight or having obesity.

  • A feeling of little or no control over eating behavior.

  • Eating in secret or when you are not hungry.

  • Feeling shame over eating patterns and behavior, and hiding food as a result.

  • Eating very quickly, as well as eating larger portions than most people would eat in a similar time frame.

  • Continuing to eat until uncomfortably full.

  • Eating a majority of your food in the later hours of the day, eating little or nothing in the morning.

  • Waking up during the night and filling up on high calorie snacks.

Treating night eating syndrome

It is very important that prior to changing your eating patterns, you have to change your perspective. Believing that night eating syndrome can be erased, and that you indeed have the power to make it happen is critical to successful treatment.

I always thought my eating patterns were a bit ‘odd,’ but they never really seemed like they warranted concern or were medically unhealthy. I can honestly say that learning more about this condition and identifying that I too may be struggling with this syndrome has made all the difference in deciding to really take charge of it.

When it comes to treating night eating syndrome, experts recommend a multi-pronged approach that begins with properly educating yourself on the syndrome, risks and symptoms. Learning the subtle and not-so-subtle hints of this syndrome can empower you to begin to identify eating patterns, as well as the environmental, emotional or mental triggers that cause them.

Nutritional and dietary assessments are also recommended, alongside therapy. This can include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), interpersonal therapy (IT), and of course, stress management. For those with night eating syndrome who may be struggling with weight issues, considering an exercise consultation or exercise education and training program may be a powerful tool in managing the syndrome.

I’ve finally identified and admitted that night eating syndrome may be affecting my life, and may have been for years. But I’ve also identified that these behaviors are not of any fault of my own and can be re-routed. I’ve taken my first step, and hope this article empowers you to do the same.