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Ask Health Coach Maria: How Do I Deal with Late Night Eating?

June 13, 2014

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Hi, I’m Maria Marlowe, a Certified Health Coach and author of Detox without the Deprivation. In my weekly “Ask Health Coach Maria” series, I answer frequently asked questions related to health and wellness. Have a question? Ask me here

Hi Maria,

I am a generally healthy woman, who eats well and exercises, but for years I have faced something that has been uncontrollable: late night eating. I have heard there is something called Night Eating Syndrome (NES), and I think I may have it. I don't crave or eat anything weird but there have been times that I don't remember that I've eaten something until the next morning. I’ve mentioned it to my doctor, but she just blows it off. Help!

-Bekki

Constant late-night eating is a rare but serious disorder that should definitely be dealt with, not brushed off!

Because you mentioned that there are times when you don’t even remember that you ate something until you find the remnants the next morning, it is possible that you have sleep-related eating disorder (SRED), which is similar to but not the same as Night Eating Syndrome (NES).

People with SRED eat while they are in a twilight state between being asleep and awake, which explains why they don’t remember having eaten until they see the candy wrappers next to the bed. It is even possible for a person with SRED to walk in to the kitchen to prepare and eat a meal with no recollection. This is considered a sleep rather than eating disorder.

People with NES, on the other hand, are fully awake and know exactly what they doing, and tend to eat the majority of their calories after dinner. They often feel guilty about their eating habits. NES is considered an eating disorder.

While the exact cause of SRED and NES is still a bit of a mystery, a study published in JAMA noted that these disorders may be brought on by a type of depression. Certain medications, including commonly prescribed sleeping pills, can also trigger night eating. Even restricting your calories and intake during the day can leave you unsatisfied, prompting your body’s desire to eat late-night.

While I am not an expert on either sleeping or eating disorders, as a holistic practitioner, I do know that the body and mind are inextricably connected, whether you are aware of it or not. If you rule out other factors, I would suggest you take a pulse check on your life in general. How do you really feel? Are you happy? Are you depressed? Are you stressed? What is really going on under the hood?

I find a little self-prodding may turn up stressors you didn’t even know you have. I have my clients complete this circle of life exercise, which is an excellent starting point for identifying imbalances in your life and figuring out what may be causing stress. It explores all the sources of “primary food” in your life, which are all the non-food factors that nourish us.  Everything ranging from our career and relationships to living situation and spirituality can take a toll on our health.

In general, things like yoga, meditation, journaling, and exercise can all be helpful, but I find sometimes all it takes is a shift in perspective or dealing with the stressor head-on for the best result. For example, if you realize you job is stressing you out because you’ve taken on too much at work, see if you can hire an assistant, share or delegate the workload, or perhaps just learn to say “no” so that you don’t bite off more than you can chew.

I know, it may not be the silver bullet you’re looking for, but learning to deal with stress head-on has helped many of my clients overcome a variety of afflictions–from digestive issues to anxiety and depression–and I have a feeling it may help with SERD as well.

Additionally, you may want to ensure your kitchen and bedroom are set up to inhibit nighttime eating. Don’t keep junk food in your house, period, so even if you do make it to the kitchen, there won’t be anything unhealthy to eat. As for your bedroom, turn it into a cozy sanctuary that you don’t want to leave, and develop a routine to destress before bed: shut off all electronics (including the TV and iPhone!) at least two hours before bed, spritz your sheets with a calming and restorative lavender spray, and perhaps play some soothing music to help you unwind before bedtime.

Has anyone else experienced SERD or NES? If so, please share your experience and how you have dealt with it in the comments below. 

Maria Marlowe is a Certified Health Coach and regular Wellness Today Contributor. Get your health question answered in her next column by sending her an email at healthcoachmaria@wellnesstoday.com.