It’s 2am in the morning, I climb out of bed, and off I head down to the kitchen to raid the fridge and the cupboards to see what goodies can be devoured. I try to stop myself and no matter how hard and as much as I know what i’m doing I just can’t seem to stop. You may be inclined to think that I never ate much that day, or that I’m just particularly hungry that night, but the truth is much darker.
You see I suffer from Night Eating Syndrome, a type of eating disorder that has similar characteristics of binge Eating Disorder and Sleep Related Eating Disorder. For years now I have woke up every night, between 2-4 times a night to eat. It didn’t start off that way though. At first it was only a couple of times a week, but over the years as my stress levels rose and I had more children and responsibility to shoulder I developed Anxiety Disorder and my my nocturnal eating habits gradually worsened. It’s like the half of my brain that controls my thinking is fully aware and tells me to stop! I shouldn’t be doing this, but the other half that controls my movement just won’t let me and I continue to gorge on my partners lunch for work the next day, or pies that I don’t even really like, filled with disgust at myself that I just can’t seem to stop. Then comes the worrying about having to explain it, trying to think up something to say to brush it off with a joke or even avoid the conversation completely.
I decided one day I wanted to try and find out why I just didn’t have the willpower to stop myself from doing this. The shame and guilt I felt in the mornings when I saw the trail of destruction left behind in the kitchen from the night before, well lets just say it deflates you. So I typed in ‘why can’t I stop eating at night’ and what came up made me cry with relief. I finally found the answer and realised that there was something wrong with me and I wasn’t alone.
So what is NES exactly? NES was first discovered by Dr Albert Skunkard, a pioneer in eating disorder research, in 1955. It is characterized by a delayed circadian pattern of food intake, and is currently in the other specified feeding or eating disorder category of the DSM-5. Although it is now recognised as an eating disorder in the US, as far as I’m aware it is only just been recognised as one here in the U.K, and many GP’s have never heard of it. So what are the signs and symptoms of NES?
The Anorexia Nervosa & related eating disorders and the Walden eating disorders treatment center define the NES symptoms as:
- The person has little or no appetite for breakfast. Delays the first meal for several hours after waking up. Is not hungry or is upset about how much was eaten the night before.
- Eats more food after dinner than during that meal.
- Eats more than half of their daily food intake during and after dinner but before breakfast (typically between 8pm and 4am for myself) and may leave the bed to snack at night.
- This pattern has persisted for 2 months.
- Person feels tense, anxious, upset or guilty while eating.
- Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and will wake frequently to eat.
- Foods ingested are normally carbohydrates: sugar and starch.
- Behaviour is not like binge eating which is done in relatively short episodes. NES involves continual eating throughout evening hours and produces guilt and shame not enjoyment.
The underlying causes of NES are still being identified and treatment plans developed but one theory is that people with this condition have significantly lower levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, and the appetite hormone leptin.
So finally I have found a reason for this nightmare. I’m not greedy, I do have willpower and self-control, its just switched off at night. Apparently nearly 1-2% of the general population have this problem however it could be more, but research shows most people may be embarrassed to come forward. I can definitely vouch for that.
Throughout my research into NES I also realised that a friend of mine may also have this disorder. Many a night we have just missed one another on the way to the kitchen, a desperate dash to see who makes it to the left over pizza first, a relieved disappointment if it wasn’t you.
I discussed it with her and added her to the only support group I have managed to find on social media, and together we continue to help each other on this battle. I really just wanted to post this to make other people aware. So if you find yourself frquently plauged with midnight snacking you may just be falling prey to Night Eating Syndrome.