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Night eating syndrome: Causes, symptoms, treatments, dieting tips

Night eating syndrome: Causes, symptoms, treatments

The term night eating syndrome may sound like it’s referring to your binge-eating habits after watching re-runs of Friends, but the reality is much more serious. Night eating syndrome (NES) refers to a rare but severe form of sleep disorder in which people eat large amounts of food late at night and then wake up feeling guilty and disgusted with themselves, often resulting in more eating and self-loathing the next day.

Some people also suffer from disturbed sleep as a result of NES, as they simply can’t fall asleep until they’ve eaten their fill.

What is night eating syndrome?

Night eating syndrome (NES) is a disorder in which people eat large amounts of food at night. They may have trouble sleeping and experience sleep deprivation because they eat at night.

The condition is associated with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety disorders. It’s a serious medical condition that requires professional treatment.

Treatment for this syndrome usually involves changing behaviors such as avoiding high-calorie foods before bedtime and limiting evening snacking.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can help treat the mental health conditions linked to the disorder.

Types of NES:

The two types of night eating syndrome are:

  • Binge-Eating Disorder (BED); and
  • Night Eating Syndrome (NES).

NES is characterized by consuming a large amount of calories after a day of fasting or dieting. NES is the lesser known of the two types, with less research done on it than BED.

People who suffer from NES have no control over their need to eat at night and may even engage in binge behaviors such as overeating and purging. When these people fast during the day, they develop strong cravings for food when they wake up at night.

They usually feel intense hunger pangs that persist until they get some form of food into their bodies. In most cases, these people will then continue to compulsively eat throughout the night.

Risk factors for this disorder include history of obesity, depression, sleep problems, alcoholism, and drug addiction.

When someone has both NES and obesity there is an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes.

The treatment options for NES include lifestyle changes such as weight loss diets which promote healthier nighttime eating patterns.

Getting help for NES:

The primary treatment for night eating syndrome is behavioral modification. Although there are no medications that have been specifically approved by the FDA to treat the condition, doctors may prescribe medications such as antidepressants or appetite suppressants if other conditions such as depression or obesity exist.

Some people find success with meal replacements like diet shakes, bars, and soups, which help regulate hunger and fullness signals in the brain and can prevent overeating at night.

Others use strategies like keeping a food journal or using apps to track calories consumed during the day and those eaten at night.

Binge Eating Disorder and Night Eating Syndrome

Diet tips for treating NES:

  • A study from the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that NES may be linked to increased nighttime cortisol levels. Another study found that people with NES have higher levels of ghrelin (a hormone that stimulates hunger) and lower levels of leptin (a hormone that suppresses appetite).
  • Try to eat dinner earlier in the evening and avoid going to bed hungry.
  • Keep a food diary so you can see what triggers your night time eating.
  • If stress is an issue for you, try to find other ways to deal with it before turning to food.
  • Create a specific plan for when and where you will eat before sleep; for example, if it’s late at night go ahead and make something small like oatmeal or toast before bed instead of raiding the fridge.
  • Plan ahead by stocking up on healthy snacks like apples or peanut butter so they’re readily available when you need them after hours.
  • Eat only one big meal a day during the day so you’re not tempted to overeat later.
  • Don’t deprive yourself entirely of nighttime calories—you’ll want some energy to burn during the next day—just limit how much you eat and make sure they’re high quality foods like protein and complex carbohydrates.
  • Start a nighttime snack routine about three hours before bedtime. Healthy options include yogurt, fruit, nuts, cereal and whole grain crackers.
  • Engage in activities that will help calm your mind such as reading or meditating instead of watching television right before bedtime.
  • Find out which types of foods trigger cravings and cut those out of your diet. Lastly, try not to go into a starvation mode mentality; restricting your calorie intake too severely can lead to more intense cravings later on.

Helpful herbs and supplements:

L-theanine is a natural supplement that may help with anxiety and sleep quality. This herb is typically found in green tea leaves. It can also be taken as an individual supplement in capsule form.

Valerian root is an herbal supplement that has been used for centuries to help people suffering from insomnia. Valerian root can be taken in capsule or tea form. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor before taking any herbal remedies for sleep issues.

Studies have not shown adverse effects on babies if mothers take valerian during pregnancy or breastfeed while taking the herb, but it’s important to discuss this with your doctor.

The hormone melatonin regulates sleep cycles by signaling the brain when it is time to go to bed. Melatonin supplements have been proven effective in treating delayed sleep phase disorder, jet lag, and shift work disorder.

As always, check with your health care provider before beginning any new treatment plan of action for night eating syndrome. Sometimes more severe cases require medication.

These medications include antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers and drugs that decrease hunger signals sent to the brain.

Other possible treatments for NED include cognitive behavioral therapy, light therapy, and transcranial magnetic stimulation.

With a holistic approach including diet changes and healthy exercise habits, some sufferers see improvement within weeks. Talk to your physician about options for managing NED so you can get back on track with healthy sleeping patterns.


Night eating syndrome is not a disorder but rather a symptom of another issue. If you feel that it is taking over your life, you should speak to your doctor to see if there are any underlying medical issues that need attention.

1) Often this behavior happens because the person has some sort of sleep disorder and they do not get enough sleep while they’re sleeping. 2) Doctors may diagnose someone with night eating syndrome if they consume more than 25% of their daily caloric intake after dinner time. 3) Treatment for night eating syndrome usually entails therapy combined with changes in lifestyle habits to ensure that the person can get proper nutrition throughout the day and can also cope with stress better during the day as well as sleep better at night.


  1. Night Eating Syndrome; Diagnosis, Epidemiology and Management; John P. O’Reardon, Andrew Peshek & Kelly C. Allison.
  2. Binge eating disorder and the night-eating syndrome; A. Stunkard, R. Berkowitz and T Wadden.
  3. Night eating syndrome: A critical review of the literature; Jillon S.Vander Wal; Received 15 June 2011, Revised 16 October 2011, Accepted 1 November 2011, Available online 9 November 2011.
  4. Night eating syndrome: an overview; Walter Milano, Michele De Rosa, Luca Milano, Anna Capasso; Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, Volume 64, Issue 1, January 2012, Pages 2–10

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