If you regularly binge eat while you’re asleep, it could be a sign of a sleep-related eating disorder.
Have you ever woken up to find open food wrappers and crumbs on your kitchen table with little to no memory of eating anything the night before?
If so, then you may have been sleep eating. This unconscious urge to binge eat at night may signal a sleep-related eating disorder (SRED).
People with this condition often prepare and eat food while asleep much quicker than they would during waking hours, with no memory of having done so.
Sleep eating can sometimes be dangerous, but managing this condition is possible.
Diagnostically, sleep eating is officially considered a sleep-related eating disorder (SRED).
SRED is a type of parasomnia condition characterized by unusual eating behaviors during sleep, much like sleepwalking.
It’s common for people who sleep eat to experience an episode every night. You may choose foods that you wouldn’t normally eat during the day, like those that are high in sugar or calories.
Sleep eating behaviors might seem harmless, but this condition can come with serious safety hazards.
With sleep eating, there is a risk you may eat toxic substances, like cleaning supplies or cigarettes. You may also accidentally injure yourself in preparing foods while asleep.
How do you know if you or someone in your life has a sleep-related eating disorder? The biggest giveaway is waking up to find evidence of sleep eating.
Symptoms of sleep-related eating disorders include:
- experiencing binge eating while asleep
- eating strange combinations of food, and sometimes eating inedible or potentially dangerous substances
- waking up with little to no memory of eating
- accidental injuries while sleep eating
- weight gain
- not feeling hungry in the morning
- feeling fatigued during the day
Experts haven’t yet pinpointed a singular cause of sleep eating, as more research on the causes of SRED is needed.
SRED commonly occurs with other sleep disorders, including:
- sleepwalking (somnambulism)
- restless legs syndrome (RLS)
- obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
- periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD)
Some medications can also cause sleep eating, such as:
- zolpidem (a generic version of Ambien used to treat insomnia)
Like many eating and sleep disorders, sleep eating shares some symptoms with other related conditions.
Nocturnal, or night, eating syndrome (NES)
Nocturnal eating syndrome (NES) is an eating disorder that causes people to wake up and eat during the middle of the night in order to fall back asleep.
People with NES often eat while they are awake and remember it. But those with SRED can go in the kitchen at night, make food, and wake up with no memory of it.
Binge eating disorder (BED)
Binge eating disorder (BED) is an eating disorder that causes people to consume large amounts of food, even when they’re not hungry. SRED and BED share similar symptoms of increased food consumption.
However, people with BED binge eat during the day and are fully conscious of what they are doing, while those with SRED are unaware or in a sleepwalking state of mind while they eat.
If you suspect you might have a sleep-related eating disorder, talking with a doctor is often the first step to diagnosis and treatment. Your doctor will likely examine you and ask you questions about your complete medical history.
Your doctor may also recommend visiting a sleep specialist. They might ask you to keep a sleep diary tracking your sleeping patterns, which can help your doctors understand what might be causing your symptoms.
A sleep study called a polysomnography may also be required. This will record your:
- brain waves
- oxygen level
- heart rate
- eye and leg movements
If you have an overnight sleep study, a technician may visually record you to see if there are any unusual behaviors or eating that occur while you sleep.
Treatment approaches for SRED often begin with addressing underlying conditions and possible causes of symptoms.
If medications are causing sleep eating, your doctor may recommend stopping or changing your prescriptions. It‘s important to talk with your doctor before you change or stop taking any prescription medications.
Other strategies for managing SRED include:
- managing stress levels, when possible
- locking or using an alarm on your refrigerator
- practicing good sleep hygiene
Eating at night may be a common habit for some people, but regularly binge eating while sleeping with little or no memory of it may indicate sleep-related eating disorder (SRED).
If you’re experiencing symptoms of sleep eating, it’s important to know that you are not alone.
SRED is a parasomnia condition causing recurring episodes of eating during nighttime sleep. SRED may also carry a risk of:
- sleep disruption
- weight gain
- potential injury from preparing foods while sleeping
- ingesting toxic substances
Diagnosis typically starts with a visit to a doctor to talk about your symptoms. Your doctor may examine you and go over your medical history with you to rule out any underlying conditions.
Your doctor may also recommend keeping a diary of your sleeping patterns and habits. If they suspect your SRED could be linked to a sleep disorder, they may refer you to a sleep specialist.
If SRED is diagnosed, finding solutions is possible, usually through lifestyle changes and addressing underlying causes.