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January 5, 2012

Understanding Night Eating Syndrome (NES)

Imagine eating a large meal after dinner, going to bed, and then awakening several times in the night to snack again! For as many as six million Americans, these nocturnal eating patterns are a regular part of life. While you might not have heard of it, Night eating syndrome, or NES, is a newly identified eating disorder, which actually affects slightly more people than does anorexia nervosa. Individuals with NES routinely consume more than half of their daily caloric intake after dinner, but before breakfast. They awaken repeatedly; usually about ten to twelve times more often than those without the condition. Then, in order to fall back to sleep, sufferers often need to consume snacks. As such, individuals with night eating syndrome generally have little or no appetite for breakfast. Unfortunately, avoiding significant daytime eating doesn't usually help keep weight down. In fact, it's been estimated that 33-percent of morbidly obese people have this condition. Furthermore, night eating syndrome causes sufferers to feel guilty, tense, and anxious while eating. It's unsurprising, then, that people with NES have higher rates of clinical depression and daytime stress. In attempting to understand why people "night eat," doctors have discovered that hormones play a large role. People with night eating syndrome tend to have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone; and lower levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. Compounding the situation is the fact that night eaters also have low levels of the hormone leptin. Leptin is an appetite-suppressing hormone that helps turn off appetite during sleep. This disruption in hormones may explain why night eaters tend to crave sugar and carbohydrates. These foods help the body produce an emotion-regulating hormone called serotonin. Because serotonin helps cause sleepiness, people with NES may actually be using night eating as a way to "self-medicate." The good news is that treatments for night eating syndrome can be very effective! Preliminary studies at the University of Pennsylvania showed that night eaters treated with the antidepressant sertraline, branded as Zoloft, showed great improvement in more than 70-percent of cases! In addition, night eaters may benefit from stress management classes as well as lifestyle changes, like limiting caffeine and alcohol. Treatment for night eating syndrome works-so if you're suffering from the condition, make an appointment to see your doctor!

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Last Updated:
December 20, 2012