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What is Night Eating Syndrome?

written by: Suzanne Florin • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 3/11/2011

If you have a poor appetite during the day and an intense craving to consume large quantities of food at night, even after you try to go to sleep, you could be suffering from night eating syndrome. Read on to find out more.

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    What is Night Eating Syndrome? Overview

    Night eating syndrome (NES) is often associated with feelings of agitation, guilt, and shame as the individual consumes large amounts of food at night. A lack of appetite in the morning usually persists late into the afternoon, such that a person may only snack on very small quantities of food.

    When it comes to putting their head down for the night someone with this disorder will have difficulty catching some zzzzzs as they are kept awake by their agitation, depression and strong desire to eat.

    When they do raid the fridge or cupboards the consumption of foodstuffs (particularly those with a high sugar and starch content) keeps the person awake. Thus, this syndrome is linked with mood and sleep disorders.

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    Signs and symptoms of Night Eating Syndrome

    • Low or no appetite in the morning.
    • Depression and moodiness are frequent during the day.
    • Feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety accompany night eating binges.
    • Snacks during the day are mostly sugary and starch food items.
    • Eating is continual during evening hours.
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    What is Night Eating Syndrome? Landmark Research

    Night eating syndrome was first described In 1955 by Dr. Albert Stunkard - now an emeritus professor at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He conducted research into the eating disorder following a patient's narration of a battle with obesity that included night eating behavior. Coincidentally one of his colleagues had similar struggles with weight and a tendency to enjoy meals in the middle of the night.

    In 2004, Stunkard led a Penn-sponsored study on night eating syndrome with three other researchers. The results were discussed in his book "Overcoming Night Eating Syndrome: A Step-by-Step Guide to Breaking the Cycle".

    Stunkard concluded that NES is not only an eating problem, but is also associated with mood and sleep disorders. He claimed that those who suffer from this eating problem have a clinical illness. According to his research NES people wake up in the morning with no appetite, but at night they experience intense hunger that drives them to consume food ravenously, causing them to stay awake.

    One of Stunkard's speculations was that eating was a way for these people to medicate themselves, after experiencing depression in the morning. However, eating episodes cause feelings of shame and guilt, rather than pleasure. The research team concluded that this eating problem can be a pathway to obesity.

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    Changes in hormone Levels

    Stunkard stated that there is an increase in the levels of serotonin in those who snack on carbohydrates during eating episodes at night and that melatonin - the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle - decreases and this creates sleeping difficulties. The levels of the hormone leptin (hunger suppressor) and cortisol (stress hormone) also fluctuate during the 24-hour period.

    Stunkard observed that in people with NES leptin tends to decrease which leads to an increased appetite. On the other hand, cortisol levels increase, and this causes these people to feel tense, anxious, and guilty while eating.

    NB: The content of this article is for information purposes and is not intended to replace sound medical advice and opinion.