Eating disorders or sleep disorders: Nocturnal eating syndrome vs. sleep-related eating disorder

Young man is sitting in bed and eating chicken

Sleep eating – nocturnal eating syndrome – is a sleep disorder, but it is different from a sleep-related eating disorder. Sleep-related eating disorders are linked with insomnia and nocturnal eating syndrome is associated with parasomnia.


In nocturnal eating syndrome (NES) the individual can eat once, twice or even more throughout the night while they are unconscious, and they are often not aware of what they are doing. In a sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) an individual consumes nearly one-quarter of their daily calories in the nighttime as a means to fall asleep. In SRED individuals tend to have insomnia and believe eating can help them sleep.

Sleep-related eating disorder (SRED), a parasomnia sleep disorder

ThinkstockPhotos-178366990-300x207In SRED the person is unaware that they are eating throughout the night. Meals consumed tend to be high-fat and in excess. Sometimes the person may be able to recall the event, but generally there is a strong lack of awareness.

A person with SRED will appear to wake up, go and eat, and return to bed. Similar to sleepwalking, it can be difficult to wake up a person with SRED. Even if the person is not hungry or thirsty they will experience at least once episode a night where they go and eat. Food during an episode is often consumed quickly and tends to be of high-sugar and fat content.

Sleep eating has potential to be quite dangerous. For example, if the person attempts to make a hot meal or cuts themselves while using a knife. Sometimes the individual will leave the kitchen in a messy state, which may help them recall what occurred when they wake up the next morning.

Other complications associated with SRED are related to indigestion; in the worst-case scenario a person consumes things that are not food, such as cigarettes. It’s important to keep things that may pose a threat to health if ingested out of the kitchen.

Nocturnal eating syndrome (NES), an eating disorder associated with insomnia

ThinkstockPhotos-86498958-300x200Nocturnal eating syndrome (NES) is associated with insomnia. Individuals have strong urges to eat at night, and they believe that eating will help them sleep. Although it doesn’t fit the typical criteria for eating disorders, it was entered into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel for Mental Disorders (DSM) under “Other specified feeding and eating disorders” as an alternative form of eating disorders.

In NES individuals are fully conscious and aware they are eating at night. NES sufferers do not normally consume large amounts of food; their eating has been linked with their emotional state. Jillon Vander Wal, Ph.D., told Psychiatry Advisor, “According to the biobehavioral model of NES, an inherited trait or predisposition for NES, when combined with stress, reduces the amount of serotonin in the brain, thereby dysregulating circadian rhythms and decreasing satiety. This model suggests that we can intervene in several ways to reduce the symptoms of this disorder.”

Difference between SRED and NES – Quick reference table

SREDNighttime eatingNES
-Amnesia of the event-Partial recall of the event-Full recall of the event
-Little arousal from sleep-Half-awake, half-sleep-Total arousal from sleep
-Eating episode after the onset of sleep-Increased appetite at night after the onset of sleep
-No daytime food cravings-Food cravings in the evening
-Intake of bizarre items-Intake normal food items
-Morning anorexia-Morning anorexia
-Comorbid sleep disorders common

Sleep-related eating disorder and nocturnal eating syndrome causes

Nocturnal eating disorders are more common in women than men and more common in those younger than 50. Nocturnal eating disorders may stem from other underlying medical issues or certain medications may also promote late-night eating.

Signs of a nocturnal sleep disorder include:

  • Waking up to eat, then going back to sleep
  • Eating more food, even right after dinner
  • Little to no appetite at breakfast
  • Seeing evidence of nighttime eating the following day – mess in the kitchen
  • Experiencing weight gain

Treatment of nocturnal eating syndrome and sleep-related eating disorder

The first step to treating SRED and NES is to see your doctor to rule out any other medical condition. A sleep test may be advised for further clarification.

Medication can be prescribed to control appetite and aid in weight loss.

If depression is the cause of SRED or NES, treating is can improve the conditions. Antidepressants may be prescribed as well.

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Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.