Sleep Eating Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

sleeping eating disorder

Do you find yourself awake in the middle of the night raiding the refrigerator? Has your partner told you that you frequently wake and head to the kitchen to make yourself a meal or chow down into the bag of potato chips? Maybe you wake up and remember these events or you may not have any recollection of them at all.

You most probably suffer from a sleeping disorder if this is happening to you frequently. Sleep Eating Disorder is a rare condition that may put you at risk for health complications like weight gain, diabetes, or high cholesterol

Why do people get up and eat in the middle of the night? Read on if you want to find out why you or your partner eats while seemingly asleep and what you can do about it.

What Is Sleep Eating Disorder?

Sleep Eating Disorder is a parasomnia. Parasomnias are a category of sleep disorders that involve undesired events or abnormal behaviors that take place at night while you are sleeping. Sleepwalking and sleep talking are both examples of parasomnias. 

Sleep Eating Disorder can have you waking in the night to eat and drink abnormal amounts of food and drinks. Sometimes more than once. 

“This behavior usually occurs nightly, frequently more than once per night, and individuals typically eat foods they would not choose under usual circumstances. Individuals typically consume high-calorie foods, often in unusual combinations and in a sloppy manner; fruits and vegetables are typically avoided. Sometimes inedible substances, such as uncooked meats, dog food, or dishwashing detergents, are consumed.” -NCBI

You may be completely aware of your behavior, only partially aware, or not aware at all that you are out of bed and eating. Sleep eating episodes vary from person to person. Some remember the episodes vividly upon waking in the morning while others have no recollection of ever getting out of bed.

It can be distressing to wake to a messy kitchen with open jars and dirty dishes. You know you left the kitchen clean before going to bed, right? 

All parasomnia sleep disorders, including Sleep Eating Disorder, have people acting in peculiar and uncharacteristic ways that the sleeper can’t control. You may tend to want to wake your partner when they are experiencing an episode. Waking them is not dangerous but may lead to them being confused and display anger towards you.

Sleep Eating Disorder can be scary for the person going through it and can lead to other sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep deprivation.

You may even put yourself at risk for injury or dangerous health complications if you are suffering from Sleep Eating Disorder. For this reason, all parasomnias are considered serious sleep disorders that should be diagnosed and treated properly. 

Symptoms of Sleep Eating Disorder

How do you know if you are experiencing Sleep Eating Episodes? 

Symptoms may include:

  • Regularly waking and getting an uncontrollable urge to eat or drink.
  • Waking up with no appetite.
  • Messy kitchen with no recollection of preparing food.
  • Frequent cuts or burns with no recollection of how you got them.
  • Inexplicable weight gain.
  • Unexplained health issues even while leading a healthy life.
  • Sleepiness during the day.

You may be suffering from Sleep Eating Disorder if you are experiencing some of these above-mentioned symptoms and occurrences. 

Causes of Sleep Eating Disorder

There is no exact known cause of Sleep Eating Disorder. Like other parasomnias, it is believed that there is a genetic or hereditary trait to these sleep disorders. It seems to be passed down in families. Is this a genetic trait or a learned behavior? It is still unknown. There are still studies underway to determine pre-existing or lifestyle factors for sleep disorders like Sleep Eating Disorder.

It is sometimes accompanied by other sleep disorders or provoked by existing health issues.

Sleep Eating Disorder may sometimes be accompanied by an existing eating disorder like bulimia or anorexia. Your body may be craving high-calorie foods and drinks and can have you unconsciously raiding the fridge in the middle of the night to supply much-needed energy.

Sleep Eating Disorder is also more frequent in people who suffer from other sleep disorders like sleepwalking or sleep apnea. 

sleeping eating disorder

Who’s at Risk of Sleep Eating Disorder?

More women than men suffer from sleep eating disorders and the condition usually tends to start in the teenage years or early twenties. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, it is estimated that 1 to 5 percent of the adult population is afflicted with a Sleep Eating Disorder, and women are affected 2 to 4 times more frequently than men.

Those who are at risk of developing Sleep Eating Disorder sometimes have these characteristics:

  • If you have an existing sleep disorder like sleepwalking, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome.
  • If you take certain medications like antidepressants or antipsychotics. 
  • If you are suffering from a mental health illness like depression or anxiety.
  • If you are afflicted with an eating disorder like bulimia or anorexia.
  • If you have a close family member that has Sleep Eating Disorder.
  • If you are sleep deprived or experience frequent insomnia.

Complications due to Sleep Eating Disorder

You may think that eating in the middle of the night is not a major cause for concern, right? Actually, Sleep Eating can cause safety hazards and eventual health issues. You may be eating unhealthy foods that are high in sugar content or fat while having sleep eating episodes.

Sleep eating can trigger health conditions even if you eat healthy throughout the day and maintain a healthy weight. 

Sleep Eating Disorder may cause:

  • Uncontrollable weight gain
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Dental problems like cavities
  • Sleep deprivation.
  • Daytime eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Daytime tiredness

Sleep Eating Disorder may also be hazardous to you or your house.

  • Can cause cuts from knives
  • Can cause burns
  • Can set fires
  • You may consume a food item that you are allergic to
  • Risk of falls
  • Risk of consuming non-edible and toxic products.

When to See Your Doctor?

There’s no need to feel embarrassed or keep this information from your friends, family, or primary care practitioner. 

Sleep Eating Disorder needs to be taken seriously. Speak with your doctor if you think that you may be suffering from this disorder. Your life and health can be impacted in a critical way. Getting a good night's sleep is important and any situation where your sleep is compromised should be looked into.

What to expect at your doctor’s appointment.

  • Your doctor will ask you several questions about your sleep habits.
  • Remember to tell him about all the medications that you take.
  • He will ask about your lifestyle. Some factors can be triggering your nighttime eating like drinking or smoking. 

You may also want to bring up the weight gain or other health issues that you may be having due to your nighttime eating. Your doctor can help get you back on track to healthy body weight. 

He may also order a sleep study that will be followed by a sleep specialist to confirm the presence of the disorder. From there a proper treatment program may be prescribed. Check with your insurance provider to know what is and what is not covered regarding sleep disorders and treatments. 

In the meantime, make sure to stay safe.

  • Lock your cabinets and knives at night.
  • Hide all toxic items.
  • Don’t keep unhealthy food in the house.
  • Tell the people you share your household with so that they can be aware and try to keep you safe during episodes.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule.
  • Avoid alcohol and other substances before bedtime.
There is no known cure for Sleep Eating Disorder, but some medications, cognitive therapy, and certain behavior therapies have proven to help with symptoms and frequency of episodes. Your sleep doctor will want to address and treat any other existing sleep disorder that you are experiencing which usually, in turn, helps with Sleep Eating Disorder symptoms.