What is night eating syndrome?
Night eating syndrome is an eating disorder categorized in the other specified feeding or eating disorder section of the DSM V.
Night eating syndrome is thought to be the result of a delayed circadian pattern that affects eating. Those who suffer from night eating syndrome often feel compelled to eat at night – or in the middle of the night- as if the body’s biological clock were off.
Two primary symptoms of night eating disorder are proposed:
• Generally eating at least 25% or more of your daily calories after the evening meal
• And/or two to three incidents weekly of eating at night, which often involves waking from sleep in order to eat
Three of following five characteristics must also be present to be considered night eating syndrome:
• Lack of appetite during morning hours
• Compelling urges to eat at night
• The belief that you eating is necessary to sleep or return to sleep
• Depressed mood or feelings of hopelessness
• Difficulty sleeping
It’s estimated that 1-2% of the general population show the signs of night eating disorder and 10% of obese people suffer from it. Night eating disorder does NOT necessarily include binge eating, although it is not uncommon for night eating disorder and binge eating disorder to coexist.
Circadian Rhythms and Night Eating Disorder
A circadian rhythm is proposed to be a type of biological clock. According to this clock, the body prepares it’s with a cascade of hormonal responses for anticipated activities, such as waking up, sleeping, and eating. Think of circadian rhythms as your body’s schedule keeper.
It’s important to note that circadian rhythms are determined by external stimuli. If you establish a pattern of eating at certain times during the day, your body’s clock with adjust accordingly and expect food at those times. The same applies to sleeping patterns. In the case of sleep, perhaps the most significant factor affecting circadian rhythms is the amount of blue light (associated with daytime) that enters the eyes at given times of the day.
As the sun sets, the body gradually prepares for sleep by increasing melatonin, among other hormonal changes. However, if a continual stream of artificial blue light enters the eyes throughout the evening, this may throw off your sleep schedule, as the body is fooled by the artificial light and continues to respond as if it were daytime. Insomnia is the result.
Regarding food intake, you may inadvertently train your body to expect minimal eating during daytime hours and heavier feeding during the evening or at night. Trained in this way, your appetite will be suppressed hormonally during the day, only to wake up at night when you’d rather be sleeping.
Research suggests that night eating syndrome victims often have normal circadian rhythms for sleep but suffer from food intake rhythms that interfere with a full night’s sleep. Simply put, part of you thinks it’s time to sleep, while another part of you thinks it’s time to eat.
Scientists summed it up this way: NES may involve a dissociation of the circadian control of eating relative to sleep.
What can you do about night eating syndrome?
You may want to take measures to reset your circadian rhythms. Remember, these patterns are largely influenced by external stimuli. This means that you can subject yourself to a different environment and require your body to adjust. Here are some ideas about how to do that.
Important: Always check with your qualified healthcare practitioner before implementing any activity that could affect your health.
Blue light blocking glasses are rising in popularity among insomniacs because they block the artificial blue light from electric light bulbs, television screens and the light emitted from our various devices. These days it’s probably unrealistic to stop using these devices after dark. With blue light blocking sunglasses, you can still use your devices without impact on your circadian rhythm for sleep.
These glasses made a huge difference for me as I searched for ways to improve sleep. Typically, I wouldn’t fall asleep until 2-3 AM. After a week of wearing the glasses around the house after 6 PM, I found I was tired and ready for bed by 10-11 PM.
Eat bigger in the morning hours and keep your meal times consistent, being sure to stop eating well before bedtime. When food and sleep rhythms are out of sync, night eating syndrome rears its hungry head. Read more about food and sleep rhythms at Food and Nutrition.
It may be safe to say that anyone struggling with night eating syndrome knows instinctively that food and sleep rhythms are off. The key is to understand that you can take active measures to correct them.