Night Eating Syndrome is an often misunderstood condition. For example, it’s common for many of us to feel more compelled to eat at night. After a long and stressful day, your hunger cues may not catch up with you until you’ve finally had a chance to sit down and unwind.
This is common for people that have such stressful days, they’re too distracted to remember to eat, and they end up eating a lot late at night. This, however, might not qualify as the ‘Night Eating Syndrome’ condition.
Having the occasional craving for a midnight snack is perfectly normal. However, for some people, the desire to eat at night can be far more severe.
Some people experience extreme hunger at nighttime, after dinner and despite already having enough to eat that day. If you find yourself constantly consuming a large portion of your daily calories at night, or eating excessive calories at night, you could be affected by Night Eating Syndrome.
This condition is a form of “disordered eating behavior”. It includes a number of symptoms found in various mood, sleep and eating disorders, from uncontrollable hunger to severe stress and insomnia. Left unchecked, the issue can quickly begin to influence your weight and health.
What is Night Eating Syndrome? (NES)
Night Eating Syndrome (NES), is a unique eating disorder which prompts people to consume most of their calories at night. In many cases, people even wake from sleep to eat. It can contribute to “binge eating” disorder as well. People with this condition often believe they need to eat large quantities of food to fall asleep, or simply feel compelled to eat at night.
The condition was first explained by a psychologist named Albert Stunkard in 1955, who considered the issue to be a behavioural symptom of obesity. Unfortunately, very little research has been conducted into the concept since. However, researchers do believe around 1.5% of people have NES. This number increases to between 6% and 16% of people with obesity.
NES can be confusing to understand and diagnose, because it shares symptoms with many other eating disorders. For instance, other ‘sleep-related eating disorders’ and ‘binge eating disorder’ also involve consuming large quantities of food at night.
In certain sleep-related eating disorders, the person with the condition isn’t fully awake, and may not remember eating at all. With Night Eating Syndrome, however, individuals are aware of what they’re doing, and fully awake.
While this condition doesn’t appear to discriminate based on age or gender, it is more common in people with other eating disorders such as bulimia or binge eating disorder.
The condition may also be more common in people with depression, anxiety, insomnia, low self-esteem, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome.
Symptoms of Night Eating Syndrome
There are various symptoms associated with Night Eating Syndrome, which can vary from one individual to the next. Some people don’t realize how severe their condition is until they (or their family member) discover extreme messes in their kitchen each morning.
The primary symptoms of NES include:
- Repeated episodes of eating at night and late into the night (even waking up to eat).
- Excessive consumption of food, even after a typical evening meal (like dinner) that was satisfying.
- Conscious awareness of regular night eating episodes.
- Skipping breakfast or feeling reluctant to eat in the morning.
- Craving food consistently throughout the night.
Believing eating is necessary to fall asleep, or feeling like it’s hard to fall asleep if they haven’t recently eaten and their stomach feels somewhat empty.
- Depressed mood, particularly during the evenings (emotional lows at night)
- Distress or guilt following a night-eating episode
If you’re in the habit of eating at night, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have Night Eating Syndrome.
Most doctors will only diagnose this condition when people consume at least 25% of their food intake following an evening meal (after their dinner) for about 3 months. People with NES may either eat huge amounts of food at once, or graze for hours throughout the evening and late into the night.
What Causes Night Eating Syndrome?
Limited research into Night Eating Syndrome means we’re not entirely sure what causes the condition. Some experts believe this condition is connected to issues with the body’s “circadian rhythm” – the internal body clock which dictates when we sleep.
Usually, throughout the day, appetite-related hormones change naturally to let us know when we need to consume more energy. At night, we need less energy, so these hormones are decreased. However, people with night eating syndrome can have less of the hormone “leptin” in their systems at night. This is the hormone known to cause feelings of satiety and fullness.
One study found people who prefer to sleep and wake later in the day (like night owls) are more likely to have night eating syndrome. Other studies indicate people with this condition often have a delayed release of melatonin, the sleep-boosting hormone.
You can find out if you’re genetically more likely to be a night owl by taking an at-home DNA test from CircleDNA. You’ll also find out about your genetic behavior traits, personality traits, and more.
Night Eating Syndrome could also be linked to dieting (or dieting attempts). When people reduce their calorie consumption significantly throughout the day, the drive to eat more later in the evening is a normal response to feeling deprived.
Some researchers believe the specific condition of Night Eating Syndrome could have genetic roots. If you’re genetically predisposed to have issues or imbalances with your ghrelin and leptin hormones, stress may trigger low serotonin levels which interfere with your feelings of satiety. If you’re genetically more likely to be a night owl (a genetically late chronotype) you’ll be at higher risk of developing this disordered eating behavior.
The Side Effects of Night Eating Syndrome
Though medical knowledge of Night Eating Syndrome is quite limited, there is a specific diagnostic test available for the condition. The “Night Eating Questionnaire” asks patients questions revolving around 6 general topics. Points discussed include percentage of calories eaten after dinner, morning hunger, nocturnal eating episodes, and sleeping disruptions.
Some doctors also use the “Night Eating Symptom History and Inventory” to measure whether a person is more likely to suffer from Night Eating Syndrome.
Although the condition may not seem particularly worrisome at first, NES can cause a number of problematic side-effects. Most commonly, the condition influences body weight, mood, and sleep quality.
Obesity and NES are commonly linked, even though not everyone with this condition will also be obese. Some experts do believe eating larger quantities of calories at night may be linked to more weight gain. Additionally, because NES causes people to wake at night for food or stay up later than normal because they’re eating, it can also lead to poor sleep quality, and sleep disruption.
In some cases, Night Eating Syndrome can also contribute to negative moods. People who eat large portions of food at night can feel a lot of guilt or shame about overeating. This can perpetuate the NES cycle because people choose to restrict their calorie intake during the day, and eat more on an evening when they have greater privacy.
How is Night Eating Syndrome Treated?
Currently, experts are still investigating the potential treatment methods which may be suitable for Night Eating Syndrome. However, similar to many sleeping, mood, and food disorders, NES is usually addressed with a combination of therapy and medication. Common strategies include psychotherapy, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), light therapy (to help reset the circadian rhythm) and certain medications that your doctor or psychiatrist might suggest.
Any type of disordered eating behavior should absolutely be addressed with your doctor and psychologist.
- NCBI: Night Eating Syndrome in Major Depression and Anxiety Disorders. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28360656/
- NCBI: Night Eating Syndrome, circadian rhythms and seasonality: a study in a population of Italian university students. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30396692/
- NCBI: Sleep and Eating Disorders. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27553980/
- NCBI: Familial aggregation in the night eating syndrome. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16609983/
- Harvard: Late-night eating and weight gain. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2022/10/study-looks-at-why-late-night-eating-increases-obesity-risk/