Sleep-Related Eating Disorders

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on November 08, 2022
2 min read

Sleep-related eating disorders are characterized by abnormal eating patterns during the night.

Although it is not as common as sleepwalking, nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder (NS-RED) can occur during sleepwalking. People with this disorder eat while they are asleep. They often walk into the kitchen and prepare food without a recollection for having done so. If NS-RED occurs often enough, a person can experience weight gain and increase their risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

A closely related disorder, known as night eating syndrome (NES), is diagnosed when a person eats during the night with full awareness and may be unable to fall asleep again unless they eat.

Symptoms of NES include the following and often persist for at least two months:

  • Little or no appetite for breakfast
  • Eating more food after dinner than during the meal
  • Eating more than half of daily food intake after dinner hour
  • Recurrent awakenings from sleep that require eating to fall back asleep

NS-RED and NES differ, in that people with NES eat when they are conscious. However, the disorders are similar in that they both are hybrids of sleep and eating disorders. Both of these conditions can interfere with an individual's nutrition, cause shame, and result in depression and weight gain.

Both men and women are vulnerable to these disorders, but they are more common among women. One in 100 people are thought to have NES. Close to 5% suffer from NS-RED. The number of people affected by these disorders increases up to 17% in those with other eating disorders. Many of these individuals diet during the day, which may leave them hungry and vulnerable to binge eating at night, when their control is weakened by sleep. In some cases, people with sleep-related eating disorders have histories of alcoholism, drug abuse, and other sleep disorders.

Treatment of sleep-related eating disorders begins with an interview and may include an overnight stay in a sleep lab, where brain activity is monitored during the night. Medication sometimes can be helpful for these disorders; however, sleeping pills should be avoided, because they can increase confusion and clumsiness that can lead to injury. Additional treatments may include methods to release stress and anxiety. Examples of these methods include stress management classes, assertiveness training, counseling, and limiting intake of alcohol and caffeine.