Night eating syndrome (NES) is an eating disorder that causes people to eat most of their daily food intake at night. A person who experiences this may have frequent sleep interruptions.

NES is different from binge eating disorder (BED), which is a serious eating disorder that involves eating large quantities of food at once.

A 2022 review explains that individuals with NES may feel the urge to eat between dinner and bedtime and believe eating at night can help them fall asleep. NES is also common in those with obesity or undergoing bariatric surgery.

This article explores NES in further detail. It also explains the steps doctors follow to confirm that a person has this disorder and any available treatments.

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Experts first described NES as an eating behavior in 1955. Researchers of a 2021 study associate it with the following symptoms:

  • depression
  • poor sleep quality
  • having the urge to eat after waking up in the middle of the night

NES may affect not only individuals with obesity but also those who have a sleep issue or another eating disorder, including:

NES has a high chance of developing during a time when a person is experiencing stress.

Furthermore, according to one journal article, it may be possible to confuse NES with sleep-related eating disorder (SRED), as both cause individuals to eat during nighttime. However, in the case of SRED, people sleepwalk and eat without remembering anything the following day.

A 2017 study estimates that NES affects 1.5% of the general population and 6–14% of those who have obesity in the United States.

A 2016 study notes a high prevalence in university students and NES, and that having depression and anxiety may be risk factors for NES. Most of these individuals may also have developmental stress, experience peer pressure, and follow an unhealthy diet.

Symptoms that may indicate a person has NES include:

  • repeated episodes of night eating
  • eating after waking up during the night
  • skipping breakfast
  • frequent symptoms of depression
  • believing that it is not possible to sleep without eating
  • sleep disturbances

A 2015 study suggests that people with NES are more likely to meet lifetime criteria for major depressive disorders and anxiety disorders.

Also, those with psychiatric symptoms may experience an increase in NES symptoms.

While the causes of NES are varied, several conditions are associated with it. They include:

Mental health conditions

A 2021 study found an association between depression, anxiety, and NES. Study participants who ate more food throughout the night had higher anxiety and depression scores than those without NES.

Obesity and weight loss problems

Authors of a 2018 journal article suggest that NES tends to be more common in individuals seeking weight loss treatments.

NES may also contribute to weight gain.

Other eating disorders

According to a 2018 article, people diagnosed with NES are more likely to have another eating disorder than those without it.

2015 research estimates that NES affects between 9–47% of those who have bulimia nervosa.

To diagnose NES, doctors may ask about the individual’s symptoms and how often they experience sleep disturbances and eat during the night. They may also ask them to complete the night eating diagnostic questionnaire.

Doctors may suggest a person keeps a sleep diary where they take note of the foods they eat and the time they wake up to help offer a treatment plan.

Another factor that may help determine whether a person has NES is that they should be aware of their nighttime eating episodes.

The following are treatment options that may help those with NES:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This is an effective treatment for treating eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. CBT is a type of talk therapy that helps individuals replace unsettling thoughts and behaviors with positive habits. For example, the sessions may help them adopt different eating times and manage their hunger at night.
  • Medications: Healthcare professionals may prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These are antidepressants that may help boost a person’s mood.
  • Melatonin supplements: Melatonin supplements may help regulate a person’s sleep-wake cycle. This could help reduce nocturnal eating, improve sleep issues, and ease depressive symptoms.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation exercises: These deep relaxation techniques relax the muscles and teach people to recognize the difference between tension and relaxation.

NES can develop in individuals who have anxiety, depression, or obesity.

It is associated with someone eating a large proportion of their daily calories in the evening before bedtime or during the night. Those with NES may have frequently interrupted sleep, as they may wake up during the night to eat. They may also experience a loss of appetite in the morning, meaning they skip breakfast.

Doctors can help confirm whether a person has NES. Keeping a sleep diary can also help track symptoms and allow people to write down the foods they eat.

To treat NES, doctors may prescribe psychotherapy and medications such as antidepressants and drugs that affect melatonin. Some people may also benefit from relaxation exercises.