The night eating syndrome (NES) was, in fact, first identified and described by Dr. Albert Stunkard in 1955 but the medical community and the general public did not come to terms with it until 1999. It is now recognized as a combination of an eating disorder, parasomnia and mood disorder that is portrayed by frequent unconscious binge eating during the night hours.
The nighttime binging in the night eating syndrome is unlike regular daytime binging and bulimia. On the one hand, those afflicted with the syndrome typically binge on small quantities of high calorie foods several times during the night. On the other hand, daytime binging and bulimia involve the consumption of huge amounts of food but only occasionally.
Night eating syndrome leads to a persistent behavior as opposed to occasional midnight snacking; people afflicted with the syndrome tend to wake several times during the night and consume fatty, high carbohydrate and unhealthful foods which amount to about fifty percent of their daily caloric intake. Having eaten several times during the night, people with night eating syndrome wake up too full to eat breakfast,
Research Findings on Night Eating Syndrome
Statistical research indicates that approximately two percent of the population at large is affected by night eating syndrome, that it can appear at any age and in both males and female, but it is most prevalent in young women. Medical research also shows that people with the syndrome have lowered levels of melatonin which is the naturally occurring hormone that regulates the body’s circadian rhythms that control the biochemical, the physiological and the behavioral 24-hour cycles such as sleep and many others. Therefore, it is believed that the decreased melatonin is a big contributor to disturbances of sleep and the onset of the syndrome. Emotional factors such as depression, anxiety, stress, boredom, low self esteem and skewed body image play a significant role in night eating syndrome and are the catalysts that lead to night binging on comfort foods that have high caloric values from their carbohydrates and fat contents. Additional factors that contribute to night eating syndrome and its night binging are leptin (the hormone that is believed to suppress appetite and speed up metabolism), certain medications and highly restrictive and prolonged dieting among obese individuals.
Treating Night Eating Syndrome
The night eating syndrome is treatable but it is not easy since, in most instances, the patients are unaware of their conditions and are, therefore, apt to resistant treatment. It is important to consult a knowledgeable and experienced professional such as a physician or a therapist who will:
- Gently but firmly get the patient to recognize that the problem exists.
- Begin a series of counseling sessions.
- Review medical records and the list of medications taken and adjust where needed.
- Address nutrition and dietary habits.
- Prescribe antidepressants such as Zoloft.
- Provide therapy to increase the nocturnal production of melatonin and leptin while decreasing the body’s adrenal stress response.
- Administer heightened doses of tryptophan (an essential amino acid) which converts to serotonin (the neurotransmitter within the brain that produces the feeling of wellness) which then converts to melatonin.