By Brooke Randolph, LMHC
Sleep eating is a rare and dangerous sleep disorder (not an eating disorder), also known as nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder (NS-RED) or sleep-eating syndrome, that affects as much as three percent of the U.S. There can be comorbidity with eating disorders; however, 10 to 15 percent of those who suffer from eating disorders also experience sleep eating.
Sleep eating is defined as episodes of eating while sleep walking. Often the foods eaten during sleep are high in sugar or high in fat. Eating non-food items (such as soap) or odd combinations (such as raw bacon covered in mayonnaise) have been reported. The sleep eater often awakes in the morning with no recollection of what occurred.
There are several dangers associated with sleep eating. Sleep walking of any kind poses the risk of self-injury by running into things, falling down stairs, etc. Sleep eaters are at risk of injury from eating uncooked food or non-food items, choking, using knives, and even cooking while sleeping and starting a fire. In addition, sleep eating also carries the same risks as binge eating, such as weight gain and increased risk of diabetes.
Symptoms of Sleep Eating
- fatigue and/or excessive daytime sleepiness
- emotional distress, anger, and/or anxiety
- inability to lose weight despite proper diet and exercise
- family history of sleep disorders, night terrors, sleepwalking and/or sleep eating disorders
- personal history of eating disorder
- personal history of alcoholism and/or drug use
- sleep eating often starts during times of stress, and may only abate after the initial stressor is resolved
It is strongly recommended that diagnosis and treatment are done by a sleep specialist. Medical and mental health professionals may also be included in treatment. Because sleep eating is often induced during times of stress, stress management treatment or classes are highly recommended. Sleep disturbance can be the first sign of stress for some. Sleep aids are not encouraged because they can increase clumsiness and/or confusion and increase chances of injury during episodes of sleep eating.
Personal stress management is the best prevention for episodes of sleep eating. Drug or alcohol use can increase one’s chances for sleep disturbances, including sleep eating, and are highly discouraged. Tricyclic antidepressants may trigger sleep eating. Some of the best prevention can be found in self-help techniques like locking doors, cabinets, and refrigerators; and playing soft music at night.