Sleep eating, also called sleep-related eating disorder, nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder, or sleep eating syndrome, is a disorder in which a person eats during their sleep. The person engages in sleep walking in order to get to the kitchen or other place where food is kept and then eats, usually large amounts of food, while still asleep.
Sleep eating may be caused by a number of things. Sleep eaters are often overweight and are often dieting at the time of the sleep eating episodes. Sleep eaters may be experiencing stressful life events at the time of the sleep eating episodes. Sleep eaters may have a history of alcoholism or drug abuse. They may have a history of other sleep disorders, such as sleep walking, restless leg syndrome, or sleep apnea. They may have an eating disorder.
Sleep eaters may eat food they deny themselves during the day, like candy, soda, and other “junk food.” They may eat odd things, like raw meat, or strange combinations of food, like mayonnaise spread on bacon or hot dogs dipped in peanut butter. They may even eat non-food items, like soap.
Sleep eaters may not initially realize they have this condition. They may, however, wake in the morning to find the kitchen is a mess, to find numerous food wrappers in the trash, or to find food missing. Family members may also tell them that they are eating during the night.
Sleep eaters may experience significant weight gain. They may experience excessive daytime sleepiness due to not getting a restful night’s sleep. They are at risk for injury during sleep walking and eating episodes, including cutting themselves while using knives, burning themselves while cooking, and choking on food. Sleep eaters may also experience emotional distress due to their condition.
The treatment for sleep eating may depend in part on the cause. If stress is determined to be a factor, stress management education, relaxation training, and/or counseling may help. If the sleep eater has a history of alcoholism or drug abuse, treatment for that condition is necessary. Likewise, if the sleep eater has an eating disorder, treatment for that condition is necessary. Reducing intake of caffeine and alcohol often helps.
If other sleep disorders are present, those should be treated. For instance, restless leg syndrome can be treated with prescription medication. Sleep apnea is often treated with a breathing machine called a CPAP machine.
There are a couple of prescription medications that have been found to be helpful in the treatment of sleep eating. These include benzodiazepines, which reduce motor activity during sleep, and dopaminergic agents such as Sinemet and Mirapex.
In addition, safety precautions should be taken to help prevent injury from occurring during sleep eating episodes. As with sleep walking, tripping over obstacles is a danger, so any low obstacles should be removed from the floor. Sharp knives and other sharp items can be put away where the sleep eater is less likely to get to them. Locking devices can be used on stove knobs to reduce the likelihood of the person using the stove in their sleep.