How to Stop Night Eating Syndrome

fridge with food
A woman is snacking at the fridge. (Image: Choreograph/iStock/Getty Images)

Many people find themselves wandering into the kitchen for a late-night snack, and that's not usually something to worry about as long as you're making healthy choices. Individuals who eat a large amount of food at night without being hungry or who get up in the night to eat might have a disorder called night eating syndrome. The condition is treatable, however, so if you suspect you have it, speak with your doctor right away.

Night Eating Syndrome Explained

The main symptoms of NES are lack of appetite in the morning, eating too much during nighttime hours or getting up in the middle of the night to eat. According to registered dietitian Cathy Leman, the eating disorder is defined by two factors: The person gets 25 percent or more of his total caloric intake from foods eaten after dinner or in the middle of the night, and he gets up to eat three or more times per week. NES affects between 1.1 percent and 1.5 percent of the general population but is most common among individuals in weight-loss programs and those who have undergone bariatric weight-loss surgery, Leman reports.

Treatment With Medication

Pharmacological intervention is one treatment for NES, according to a 2012 article published in "Psychiatric Clinics of North America." One type of medication that might be used is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. This drug can help patients with NES wake up less often during the week, which reduces how much food they're ingesting in the middle of the night. Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors might also be used, according to Jennifer D. Lundgren, author of "Night Eating Syndrome: Research, Assessment and Treatment."

Treatment With Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive behavior therapy requires patients to relearn the appropriate way to eat, which is during the day rather than the middle of the night, according to the article in "Psychiatric Clinics of North America." It also helps the NES patient get over faulty thinking such as, "If I don't eat, I won't be able to fall asleep." Examples of activities included in the treatment are keeping food and sleep logs. The behavior therapy also helps patients learn to eat more food during the day instead of at night and how to address the desire to eat in the evenings. A further component of treatment might be eliminating all the foods a patient would normally eat at night from the house.

Other Potential Treatments

Other types of behavioral therapy might address underlying mood or anxiety disorders, which can contribute to NES. Diagnosing conditions such as restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea might also help reduce symptoms of NES, according to Leman. In addition, more drastic measures such as chaining the refrigerator closed might be used. Phototherapy is another treatment that helps increase melatonin production, which is essential for normal sleep patterns. The goal is to help patients sleep through the night more easily, which can cut down on nighttime eating.

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