Night Eating Syndrome

Night Eating Syndrome: Overview

You're lying in bed, and you can't sleep.  If you think a little midnight snack might help to "soothe" your nerves, perhaps you should think again.  While an occasional midnight raid on the refrigerator poses no threat to health for most of us, as a habitual pattern to combat sleeplessness, Night Eating Syndrome (NES) can play a powerful and destructive cyclical role in individuals battling obesity, affecting as many as one quarter of severely obese individuals.

Causes and Development

In a recent report of a collaborative effort involving behavioral and endocrine studies conducted in the United States and Norway, researchers shed new light on NES.  The article, published in JAMA, suggests that NES – characterized by nightly binging to combat stress and insomnia, followed by morning-after bouts of anorexia – may be deeply rooted in stress-related hormonal imbalances.

Researchers from the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine evaluated 10 individuals with NES.  These individuals consumed over 50% of their food calories after 6 p.m.  In addition, their sleeping and mood patterns differed greatly from controls, with mood falling steadily after 4 p.m., and nightly awakenings averaging 3.6 times per night.

Looking for possible biochemical triggers underlying this pattern, scientists from the Clinical Research Department and the Laboratory of Gastroenterology of the University Hospital in Tromso, Norway examined the hormone activity of NES patients (12 night eaters and 21 controls) over the complete light-dark cycle.  They found that the night eaters – both normal and overweight – had significantly lower melatonin levels during the night than did the controls.  Since melatonin levels normally rise at night to induce and sustain sleep, this may explain why NES patients wake up more frequently at night.

NES has been linked to hormone imbalances; high cortisol, low melatonin and leptin may make things worse.  Leptin, the "hunger hormone" which rises at night to suppress appetite, was also lower in the NES patients, partly explaining their nocturnal food cravings.  This "distinctive neuroendocrine pattern" in individuals with NES may provide the key to more successful treatment, said the researchers.

Treatment and Prevention

Therapy to increase the natural nocturnal rise in melatonin, reduce the body's adrenal stress response and raise leptin levels or improve leptin sensitivity are options that may help these patients overcome the disorder.  Another key may involve the availability of tryptophan, an important amino acid, in the body.  More than 70% of the nighttime eating to combat anxiety involved binging on carbohydrates.  These foods are believed to increase the amount of tryptophan available for conversion to serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter in the brain that promotes an overall sense of well-being and, in turn, converts to melatonin.

NOTE: Addressing hormonal and biochemical imbalances in patients with chronic eating and mood disorders can be crucial for uncovering fundamental causes and contributing factors that underlie cyclical, habitual patterns of insomnia, overeating, and depression.

Night Eating Syndrome

Information On This Page

Signs, symptoms & indicators of Night Eating Syndrome:

Symptoms - Food - General

Risk factors for Night Eating Syndrome:

Hormones

Low Melatonin Level may increase risk of Night Eating SyndromeLow Melatonin Level
Melatonin levels were found to be generally lower in patients with Night Eating Syndrome.

Mental

Stress may increase risk of Night Eating SyndromeStress
Nighttime eaters have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol during almost all hours of the day, suggesting that they suffer from the effects of chronic stress in their daily lives.

Night Eating Syndrome suggests the following may be present:

Mental

Night Eating Syndrome often suggests StressStress
Nighttime eaters have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol during almost all hours of the day, suggesting that they suffer from the effects of chronic stress in their daily lives.

Recommendations for Night Eating Syndrome:

Amino Acid / Protein

Tryptophan / 5HTP often helps with Night Eating SyndromeTryptophan / 5HTP
Taking Tryptophan or 5-HTP orally causes an increase of serotonin in the brain.

Lab Tests/Rule-Outs

KEY

Weak or unproven link: may increase risk of
Weak or unproven link:
may increase risk of
Strong or generally accepted link: often suggests
Strong or generally accepted link:
often suggests
Definite or direct link: is a sign or symptom of
Definite or direct link:
is a sign or symptom of
Moderately useful: often helps with
Moderately useful:
often helps with
Very useful: is highly recommended for
Very useful:
is highly recommended for