The sleeping pill Ambien was recently blamed for people unwittingly getting up in the middle of the night to eat but medication isn’t the only culprit.
Bill Lederer says he used to get up two to three times a night to snack in his sleep.
"In the morning, I would go to the sink and find out that I had eaten ice cream or something and really didn’t have a recollection of it,” he says.
Though his weight stayed the same, the lack of sleep left him exhausted and he says, "I'm not sure why I was doing it."
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania say it could be one of several reasons. For instance, bad eating habits can trigger night eating syndrome.
Dr. Jennifer Lundgren, Ph.d., says, "People oftentimes don’t eat breakfast. They might eat a lunch, although that might even be delayed and they’ll eat 25 percent or more of their food after the evening meal.”
Depression and stress have been associated with night eating and in a recent study, Dr. Lundgren linked it to alcohol abuse and obesity.
She says, "Obese people actually had five times the likelihood of meeting criteria for night eating syndrome compared to normal weight individuals.”
In another study, doctors wanted to see if an antidepressant could curb somnambulist snacking.
Dr. John O’Reardon says, "These are drugs that affect serotonin and they can help depression, but also other conditions like anxiety disorders and now it looks like night eating syndrome.”
Dr. O'Reardon says 70 percent of participants showed improvement of their symptoms.
“Of those who get better with the medication, 50% will be better the first four weeks but the other 50% is in the second four weeks,” he says.
Bill took part in the study and he says, "I sleep much better now than I did then. I now sleep straight through pretty much from about 11 to seven in the morning.”
Researchers say participants in the antidepressant study had a second benefit: a reduction in weight gain that goes along with night eating. About 1.5 percent of people have night eating syndrome.
Fast Facts:About one to two percent of Americans have night eating syndrome. They cannot sleep without getting out of bed in the middle of the night to eat.
Night eating can cause a person to gain weight. The average diet of the night eater tends to contain about twice as many carbohydrates, twice as much protein and four times as much fat as the average person.
Some physicians are using the medication, sertraline, to treat patients with night eating syndrome. The medication doesn’t work for everyone but those who respond generally see results in four to eight weeks.
From time to time, a person may wake up hungry and feel the urge to snack in the middle of the night. A person with night eating syndrome has an established pattern of sleeping difficulties (insomnia) and eating during the nighttime hours. In fact, researchers say people with night eating syndrome consume more than one-third of their daily calories after dinner.
In addition to eating during sleep time, patients have little or no appetite for breakfast and may not eat any significant amount of food for several hours after waking. After going to bed, the person may have a hard time going to sleep or may wake up frequently.
Jennifer Lundgren, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist with the University of Pennsylvania, says people with night eating syndrome tend to eat foods that are quickly and easily available (usually whatever they can forage in the kitchen). The average diet of the night eater tends to contain about twice as many carbohydrates, twice as much protein and four times as much fat as the average person. Some night eaters will keep food in the bedroom. On rare occasions, they may even keep a stocked refrigerator in the bedroom.
According to the Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc., night eating syndrome affects one to two percent of Americans. Many patients are overweight. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found obese patients were five times more likely to meet the criteria of night eating syndrome than people of normal weight. But the condition can occur in normal weight people as well (researchers believe night eaters who aren’t overweight may exercise more during the day or restrict their food intake more to balance out the extra calories). The symptoms are associated with increased stress and depressed mood. In a sample of psychiatric outpatients, 12.3 percent of the subjects met the criteria for night eating syndrome. More than 30 percent of the participants with night eating syndrome met criteria for lifetime substance abuse, most notably for alcohol abuse.
Treating Night Eating Syndrome
Night eating is often seen by physicians as a “bad habit” rather than a true disorder. Thus, patients may have a hard time getting help for the problem. Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania have been using the medication, sertraline (Zoloft®), to treat patients with night eating syndrome. Sertraline is in a class of drugs, called serotonin reuptake inhibitors. It increases the amounts of the brain chemical, serotonin, which plays a role in mood.
In one small study 17 patients with night eating syndrome were given sertraline for 12 weeks. At the end of the treatment period, five patients achieved remission of their symptoms and lost a significant amount of weight. Some patients start to see the effects within four weeks. Others may take as long as 8 weeks to see any benefits with the medication.
Researchers say medication doesn’t work for everyone and takes time. Some people may also benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy.
Web Resources:Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. Web site
For information on night eating:
For general information about sertraline, click here.