People with night-eating syndrome will eat and graze compulsively from dinner until bedtime. In some cases, they will wake two or three times during the night and feel the need to eat in order to get back to sleep. Night eating commonly produces feelings of shame and guilt, which can lead to severe anger and depression.
Night eating differs from sleep-related eating disorder, where individuals eat while sleepwalking and often consume odd foods such as pet food or coffee grounds. Night eaters are awake, completely aware of their actions, and are able to recall what they ate the next day. Night eating affects both men and women, and is higher among overweight or obese individuals. According to the Montreal Gazette, up to 42 percent of weight-loss surgery patients report symptoms of night eating syndrome.
Brain scans have shown elevated levels of serotonin transmitters in the brains of night eaters, suggesting a genetic predisposition to compulsive behavior that can be triggered by stress. Some antidepressants have been helpful for night eaters, but more studies are needed to determine the cause and best course of treatment.
Night eating can be triggered by stress and anxiety. Once normal eating patterns are disrupted, it becomes a cycle of stress-induced eating, which creates more stress. Even once the initial stressor has passed, the body is accustomed to this pattern of sleeping and eating.
Unhealthy or unsuccessful dieting techniques can also lead to night eating. After a day of severely limiting calories, people are famished by dinnertime. Some people are able to make healthy food choices throughout the day, but then describe feeling like a different person at night and feeling powerless to their cravings
Tips to combat night eating:
- Come up with some activities that you can engage in to distract you from food cravings. These may include light exercises such as pushups or crunches, reading, writing in a journal, or taking a warm bath.
- Consume a low-calorie snack or drink that is still soothing, like sugar-free hot cocoa, popsicles, or jello.
- Eat something filling, such as nuts.
- Eat celery or dill pickles, which are low in calories. Keep pre-cut veggies in the refrigerator so you always have a healthy snack on hand.
- Turn off the TV. Zoning out in front of the television can trigger mindless eating. Engage in a hobby that requires more active participation, such as scrapbooking or woodworking.
- Drink plenty of water and brush your teeth so you are less tempted to eat.