Food as a sleep saboteur? Absolutely. And we aren’t talking about nights when you try the new sushi place down the street and end up with dancing shrimp doing the rumba through your gut. Instead, we’re talking about a saboteur called sleep-related eating disorder (SRED). Also called nocturnal binge-eating disorder, it’s a condition in which eating during the middle of the night is likely to keep you from getting the deep restorative sleep you need, and it may force you to gain serious amounts of weight.
Signs of SRED
The disorder affects more than four percent of young adults, researchers report, and triple that number among those who have been diagnosed with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. It may go on undetected for a whopping 10 years before weight gain, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, major depression, and disrupted sleep reveal its presence to a physician’s discerning eye.
Sometimes the only clue you have to SRED is the trail of bread crumbs you leave behind. You wake up on the groggy side, feeling stuffed and a little anorexic, walk to the kitchen, and there you find the remnants of a midnight snack’usually high-fat, high-calorie foods. There are probably no fruits or vegetables, but there may well be such oddities as buttered cigarettes, dog food, salt sandwiches, even eggshells, and, dangerously, kitchen cleaners.
What happens during an incident of SRED?
The out-of-control eating occurs almost nightly, sometimes more than once a night. It begins after a period of sleep. The next morning the sleep eater may be able to recall vague images of what she did. Or not.
Scientists are just beginning to unravel the complicated brain circuitry that connects eating and sleeping. But they have been able to figure out that SRED is sometimes associated with sleep disorders such as restless legs, narcolepsy, or obstructive sleep apnea and can be triggered by medications such as zolpidem (Ambien), triazolam (Halcion), and lithium (Lithobid). It can also apparently be triggered by major relationship stress, by dieting, and by the cessation of cigarette smoking, alcohol, and recreational drugs.
4 ways to get a handle on sleep eating
‘ See your doctor. If you’re gaining weight and discovering a mess in the kitchen every morning, talk to your doctor about whether or not you might have SRED. Tell her about any medications you’re taking that she might not know about, including any recreational drugs or alcohol. Tell her about your eating habits, relationships, and any recent dieting. Even if she can’t find the precise cause of your eating, there are medications she can prescribe that will help you control the disorder.
‘ Stay off diets. Dieting is a natural response to the weight gain you’re experiencing, but it may be counterproductive. In fact, it may be exacerbating your problem. Run any low-calorie eating plans by your doctor.
‘ Rebuild relationships. If a close relationship with a parent or partner is stressing you out, see a therapist pronto. You could be paying the price of a nonfunctional relationship with your health.
‘ Frisk your home. Get everything out of your home that would be harmful if you ate it. That means kitchen cleaners, bathroom cleaners, paint, lamp oil, whatever. Leave medication at the office or with a trusted friend’anywhere you can get it when you need it, but not at home while you’re sleep eating.