You’ve heard of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, but have you ever heard of night eating syndrome?
It’s a relatively new member of the eating disorder group that is starting to gain attention. Unlike some of the other conditions, this one has more to do with signs of a severe mental illness than just a problem with food.
According to the New York Times, Dr. Albert Stunkard gets the credit for discovering this condition back in 1995. According to research, it’s a combination of three disorders: mood, eating, and sleep. The person who has night eating syndrome is fully awake and aware of their surroundings. These individuals are not sleepwalking, nor are they doing things while in a sedative state.
Instead, most of these individuals feel that food will help them get back to sleep, which is where their sleep disorder comes into play. It’s not uncommon for someone under high amounts of stress to work right through their lunch, and they catch up on all those lost calories when the night comes.
Another common scenario is that you may be on a very restrictive diet that leaves you hungry in the evening. You have all the willpower in the world while you’re busy at work, but you binge at night when all you can think about is food. Others find that their depression is worse in the evenings, and there’s nothing that soothes depression-like high-calorie sweets and junk food.
Facts About NES
According to Anorexia Nervosa & Related Eating Disorders, night eating syndrome affects around two percent of the population. Unlike bulimia and anorexia, which are often used to fit into societal norms by women, NES is equally present in both genders.
While there have been many studies conducted on this eating disorder, one was particularly interesting conducted by JAMA. Researchers discovered that people with NES have only eating about one-third of their daily calories by dinnertime, or 5-6 pm. Oddly, those who don’t have night eating syndrome have already consumed more than 75 percent of their daily calories.
There is a direct link between substance abuse, self-inflicted harm, and night eaters. Those who binge eat in the nighttime hours are also more susceptible to having an addiction problem. It’s often found that those in recovery use food as a tool to cope, and they trade one addiction for another.
The same can be said of those that engage in self-harming activities, like cutting. The cutting results from intense anxiety that they cannot control, so if they try to manage their stress less aggressively, they may turn to food. Since both depression and anxiety seem to be the greatest during the evening hours, it stands to reason that eating would increase when stress is at the highest levels.
A Connection to Stress
Stress seems to be another significant consideration for those suffering from this eating disorder. For instance, a study was conducted by The Journal of Adolescent Health that showed some interesting results. College students and those under a significant amount of stress are at a higher risk of developing this condition.
Students typically stay up late trying to cram for tests and don’t get adequate sleep, which puts them at a higher risk for NES. The same could be said for those who work long hours and come home unable to sleep due to their mind racing and unable to relax from the day’s angst.
Symptoms of Night Eating Disorder
If you think you have symptoms of NES, then many signs indicate this condition. However, keep in mind that not every person will have all of these. The diagnosing criteria are that you have 2-3 with a prevalence that lasts a month or longer. Here is a checklist that you may have this eating disorder.
1. You have a lack of appetite in the morning.
2. You notice you have uncontrollable urges to eat during the evening or night.
3. You believe that eating will help you sleep.
4. You have ongoing issues with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.
5. You experience frequent sleep disturbances.
6. Others notice food missing from the kitchen that you know you took.
7. You find messes in the morning and vaguely remember making them.
8. You hoard food to make sure you have enough.
9. You’re gaining unexplained weight.
10. You have a feeling of no control over your behavior.
11. Your eating habits bring deep shame to you, so you hide them.
12. You’re overweight and have other medical issues like high blood pressure.
13. You have a negative self-image due to weight issues and a lack of self-control.
14. You have a history of substance abuse problems.
15. You constantly binge on high-calorie snacks and crave sugars and starches.
16. 25 percent of your daily caloric intake is eaten after dinner.
17. You frequent restrictive diets to lose weight.
18. You’re prone to self-medicating from bottled-up stress.
19. You frequently eat large portions in short periods, similar to binge eating.
20. You engage in other eating disorders.
The Mental Health Fallout
There is an element of shame that comes with this disorder, so many people choose to eat in secret. You may find that it’s easier to binge when everyone else in the house is in bed. You may also discover that it’s better to hoard or hide food so that you are sure to get all you want.
It’s possible that a child who suffered from neglect, like those in the foster system, can grow up thinking that they need to hoard. Hoarding food is a preventative measure for someone who feels they won’t get enough or is in danger of going hungry. The binge eater uses foods as medicine for underlying issues such as depression, anxiety, stress, or other circumstances out of their control.
Predisposing Risks and Factors
There is plenty of research that links genetics with eating disorders. The Mayo Clinic addresses this issue in one of their articles. The biological factors cannot be denied in binge eating.
If your parents have issues with eating disorders, it makes a child more susceptible to such behaviors. Additionally, there are mental health components in all these illnesses, specifically night eating syndrome. Having depression and anxiety, and other mental health disturbances can increase your chances of developing something such as night eating syndrome.
Those who have a poor relationship with food and have a history of yo-yo dieting or using restrictive methods may be susceptible to NES. Dieting can change your brain chemicals, and if your body isn’t getting the pleasure receptors caressed as it wants, it can cause binge eating.
The most common age of this and other eating disorders are in the 20-30-year-old crowd, though they can occur at any age.
Prevention and Awareness
It would be nice if there were an herb you could take or some exercise you could do that would keep eating disorders at bay. However, there are some strategies that you can employ to teach your children how to develop a good relationship with food.
One of the best things you can do as a parent is to avoid dieting and talking about dieting with your child. Keep your weight struggles private, at least the bulk of them. Your child needs to develop good family eating habits as it can help to forge a good relationship with food, so never underestimate the power of the family mealtime.
Teaching your kids to eat a well-balanced diet should be done in word and deed. Another significant issue today is the body image that is touted as acceptable. Women usually have more of an issue with this than men, but news and other media outlets parade women to have a perfect figure when they’re half-starving.
As parents, you must correct any misconceptions and help them to avoid the attraction of these dangerous ideas. Sure, you may lose a great deal of weight with a condition like anorexia, but this disease does so much damage to your heart that it could end your life prematurely.
Finally, it’s essential to love the skin you’re in. You may never be a stick figure with the perfect body, but it would be a boring world if everyone looked the same. Eating disorders may cause you to gain or lose weight, but they all stem from the misconception of not loving your body or feeling that you fit in. Of course, there are also psychological aspects.
Final Thoughts on Night Eating Syndrome
There is no magic pill that you can take, and night eating syndrome will go away. Instead, counseling and addressing the mental illness aspects is crucial. These behaviors are often seen in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder as their need to eat soon becomes a compulsion.
Various therapeutic approaches seem to be the most helpful, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. Retraining the brain and having a better relationship with food is the key to reversing this issue. Looking at your body differently and learning to manage your stress levels can help manage this condition effectively.
Eating disorders of all varieties are hard on the body. Putting on too much weight from NES or binge eating can cause high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, and type II diabetes. You need to address the underlying issues that you’re trying to self-medicate away.