Sleep eating, sometimes called sleep related eating disorder, is a parasomnia event in which the subject awakens during sleeping hours, sometimes multiple times during one sleeping period, and eats or drinks, often excessively. The subject does this almost entirely unconsciously, and may have little to no memory of its occurrence. Others may be able to recall vividly the events during the night, despite happening during a sleep induced state. Sleep eating shares many similarities with sleepwalking, and may be confused with sleepwalking. Subjects afflicted with sleep eating will rarely indulge in other activities such as sleepwalkers, and once their eating episodes are completed, they will often return to bed. Like sleepwalkers, sleep eaters can be extremely difficult to rouse from their state, like sleepwalkers, and trying to do so may result in them getting angry or irritable with you.
Sleep eaters tend to have at least one episode every night, and these usually occur regardless of possessing any actual feelings of hunger or thirst detected by the brain. Sleep eaters also tend to eat foods high in calories or sugar, and may eat foods while sleep eating that they normally would not eat on their own, or which would not be seen as socially acceptable to eat on their own, such as peanut butter on its own, or sugar or syrup on its own. The food is also consumed much quicker than it would be during waking hours.
Sleep eating can be potentially dangerous, as subjects may injure themselves while trying to prepare a hot dish using appliances or may accidentally cut themselves while hurriedly chopping up ingredients. They will likely leave behind a slovenly kitchen, which is often the easiest method of detection for people living alone and with no memory of the episodes. The sleepeater’s only goal is to eat, and they have no interest in wasting time cleaning, either before, during or after the episode.
Another serious problem that can result from sleep eating is ingestion of bizarre and/or dangerous combinations of food. This can include eating or drinking of non food items such as cigarettes, coffee beans or cleaning liquids. This can lead to serious illness or stomachache.
Sleep eating is more likely to develop slowly, with occasional nights of eating, but may start off with consistent sleep eating episodes right from the start, usually brought on by recent changes to diet, or issues related to stress or depression. Sleepeating may also develop in people who have recently quit smoking or drinking alcohol, with the use or discontinued use of certain medications, or those with sleeping disorders while awake.
In addition to causing potential undesired weight gain or even injury, sleepeating also disrupts sleep, sometimes multiple times per night, which can lead to other health concerns.
People with other sleeping disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and sleepwalking itself are at a higher risk of developing sleep eating. Sleepeating is more common in women, and usually develops in early adulthood, often in conjunction with dieting, anorexia or stress. When the issue that resulted in the commencement of the sleep eating is dealt with, the sleep eating will usually cease as well, though this is not always the case.
When sleep eating is suspected, a doctor should be consulted to try and rectify it. The doctor will need to know any past medical history, including medications you have been on or are on currently, any diets you may be trying, any past or current sleeping disorders you may be afflicted with, and other personal issues that may be having an effect on your mental health. You may need to take a polysomnogram sleep study test to ascertain the number of parasomniac activities you are engaging in, and if any other sleeping disorders may be causing the problem.
Sleep eating is effectively treated with medications to suppress both sleeping parasomnias, and sleep eating incidents in particular. To decrease the possibility of injuries incurred while sleep eating, any dangerous foods or substances should be kept away from the kitchen. The path to the kitchen should also be cleared of anything that could be tripped over or crashed into.
Having a proper, well balanced diet overseen by a dietician is also important for those who have recently gone on diets. This will limit the body’s cravings that can result in sleep eating through insufficient nutrition.
Having good sleep hygiene is necessary to limit all parasomnias, and this can be discussed further with a doctor or sleep specialist. This could include implementing a rigid sleeping schedule and having a proper sleeping environment.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.