Most people are familiar with sleep talking and sleep walking, but what about sleep eating? Like the other two activities, which are officially categorized as parasomnias, sleep eating can occur when a person’s normal bodily functions related to sleep do not work exactly as they should. It can also happen when someone struggles with a different kind of disorder that compels them after bedtime.
Normally, when we sleep, the decrease in brain and body activity means we use less glucose. This is one of the reasons we don’t experience significant blood sugar drops while we are asleep even though we are technically fasting for 7 to 9 hours at a time. If we didn’t eat for that long while we are awake, we would be hungry and our blood sugar would have dropped causing irritability and other symptoms. There are also hormonal changes happening during sleep that help our bodies manage glucose levels without requiring additional food intake.
This is how things are supposed to happen, but sometimes, something goes awry and we end up eating when we aren’t supposed to. Here is a look at the two very different disorders that can cause sleep eating and often have a similar result, obesity.
You’ve Been Eating in Your Sleep….and You Don’t Know It
The first disorder that causes sleep eating, called Sleep Related Eating Disorder (SRED), is a type of sleepwalking. People with SRED are not eating consciously just like the sleepwalker is not moving around consciously. Most sleep eaters with this condition have no memory of eating at all and may only be aware of it upon waking to find food in the bed with them or signs in their kitchen that food was prepared or eaten during the night. It can occur in those with other sleep disorders like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. It has also been seen in those who take certain medications like Ambien.
Sleep Related Eating Disorder is more common in women and generally begins when people are in their 20’s. Those with the disorder experience unconscious episodes of binge eating and may even ingest toxic substances during these binges. The disorder can cause injury, nutritional problems, and weight gain and can make it difficult to manage health conditions like diabetes. Treatment may include changing or introducing new medication, therapy, environmental changes, and treating other sleep disorders.
You’ve Been Eating in Your Sleep….and You Can’t Control It
The second cause of sleep eating is called Nocturnal or Nighttime Eating Syndrome and those with this condition may take in more than half of the calories they consume for the entire day during a post-bedtime binge. Unlike SRED, people with this disorder are awake and aware during their binge, but they feel a compulsion to continue eating. This problem is treated with cognitive behavioral therapy and anti-depressants.
If you are concerned that you or someone in your life is struggling with sleep eating, talk to your doctor. Understanding the source of the problem and getting the proper treatment is the best way to curtail this behavior.