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The truth about sleep-related eating disorders

Imagine going to bed one night and awakening the next morning to find empty food containers and crumbs littering your floor. You don’t know who ate the food or how your kitchen got trashed, but you feel surprisingly full.

Though this scenario sounds unusual, it could be the result of a condition known as sleep-related eating disorder (SRED).

“Sleep-related eating disorder is a parasomnia, or a collection of sleep disorders that cause you to behave abnormally while you are sleeping,” says Aris Iatridis, M.D., a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist at Piedmont. “People suffering from this condition get up in the middle of the night and eat. But they do so unconsciously, having little to no memory or the event.”

Sleep eating typically occurs during the deepest stage of non-REM sleep, called slow-wave sleep. This is the same stage of sleep that sleepwalking derives from.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the condition is more common in women than in men and usually develops in people between the ages of 22 to 29 years old.  

Why do people sleep eat?

“Sleep eating can be caused by taking commonly prescribed sleeping pills like Ambien,” Dr. Iatridis says. “It can also be triggered by taking benzodiazepines [tranquilizers] like Halcion.”

Other risk factors include:

  • Daytime eating disorders, like bulimia or anorexia
  • Dieting during the day
  • Other sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, sleepwalking or restless leg syndrome
  • Stress

“Sometimes it happens for no good reason,” Dr. Iatridis says. “But usually that's pretty rare.”  

Is sleep eating dangerous?

The biggest danger to most sleep eaters is weight gain. Consuming large amounts of food at night could eventually lead to obesity and ultimately, other health conditions like diabetes.

Sleep eaters may also suffer from depression as a result of the shame they feel about their condition. 

How do you treat sleep eating?

It may be tempting to lock cabinets and drawers to prevent sleep eating, but Dr. Iatridis says the most important way to treat the condition is to understand what is actually triggering it.

“It’s important to determine what is causing the sleep eating so you can try to stop it,” Dr. Iatridis says. “If you are taking a sleeping pill and that is what is causing the condition, we may need to switch your medication or--even better-- wean you off sleeping pills.”

Sometimes antidepressants like Prozac are used to treat sleep eating.  Stress reduction techniques and practicing good sleep habits can also help.

To learn more about treatment for sleep disorders, visit Piedmont Sleep Services

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