What is Sleep Eating?

Also sometimes called sleep-related eating (disorder), nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder (NS-RED), or sleep-eating syndrome, sleep eating is a rare and dangerous sleep disorder (not an eating disorder) that affects up to three percent of the population. There can be comorbidity with eating disorders; however, ten to 15 percent of those that suffer from eating disorders also experience sleep eating.

Sleep eating is classified by episodes of sleep walking during which one eats. Often the foods eaten during sleep are high in sugar or high in fat. Non-food items (such as soap) or odd combinations (such as raw bacon covered in mayonnaise) have also been reported as eaten during episodes of sleep eating. The sleep eater often awakes in the morning with no memory of the event.

There are several dangers associated with sleep eating. Sleep walking of any kind poses the risk of self-injury from running into things, falling down stairs, etc. Those that are sleep eating are at risk of injury from eating uncooked food or non-food items, choking, using knives, and even cooking while sleeping, and starting a fire. In addition, sleep eating also carries the same risks as binge eating, such as weight gain and increased risk of diabetes.

Symptoms of Sleep Eating include:
• fatigue and/or excessive daytime sleepiness
emotional distress, anger, and/or anxiety
• inability to lose weight despite proper diet and exercise
• family history of sleep disorders, night terrors, sleepwalking and/or sleep eating disorders
• personal history of eating disorder
• personal history of alcoholism and/or drug use
• sleep eating often starts during times of stress, and may only abate after the initial stressor is resolved

It is strongly recommended that diagnosis and treatment are done by a sleep specialist. Medical and mental health professionals may also be included in treatment. Because sleep eating is often induced by periods of stress, stress management treatment or classes are highly recommended. Sleep disturbance can be the first sign of stress for some. Sleep aids are not encouraged because they can increase clumsiness and/or confusion and increase chances of injury during episodes of sleep eating.

Personal stress management is the best prevention for episodes of sleep eating. Drug or alcohol use can increase one’s chances for sleep disturbances, including sleep eating, and are highly discouraged. Tricyclic antidepressants may trigger sleep eating. Some of the best prevention can be found in self-help techniques like locking doors, cabinets, and refrigerators; playing soft music at night; and tying a thread to one’s wrist and the bed frame to wake oneself if one does get out of bed.

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