My children had a favorite bedtime story about a certain frustrated pastry chef named Marcel, who awaked every night to creep down to the palace kitchen where he baked and presumably ate sweet confections. The king attributed the delectable desserts to the palace baker until one night, when the smells of the pastries drew the king to the kitchen, he discovered Marcel tasting his way through his very own cream puff confections. Once Marcel was outed as the creator, he was handsomely rewarded and promoted to the royal pastry chef.
For those who struggle with night eating patterns, there is no positive reinforcement of their nocturnal behavior. In fact for these individuals, night eating represents a loss of control and a behavior which they strive to overcome. Recognized as early as 1955 by Dr. Albert Stunkard, Night Eating Syndrome (NES) has received increased attention by clinicians who treat eating disorders, yet many who suffer from NES are unaware of the syndrome or its treatments.
Night eating is often associated with mood disorders; those with night eating patterns scored higher for depression and had lower self esteem than controls. They often report that they experience a worsening mood as the day wears on and that they turn to food for comfort or to help them sleep.
NES is characterized by eating the majority of one’s calories after dinner, but not all night eaters eat in the middle of the night. Night eaters typically skip breakfast and don’t have an appetite until several hours into their day. Their evening meals or the snacks after dinner tend towards high carbohydrate foods such as crackers, bread or sweets. The night eating patterns persists several times per week and last for months, if not years and can lead to obesity, though this is not always the case.
Until recently researchers wondered about the biology of night eating patterns and they are beginning to get some answers. One of the keys may lie in the neurotransmitter profiles of individuals with night eating patterns. They don’t seem to derive the same pleasure from eating that others do, indicating that they may be suffering from more than guilt. In fact, their brains may have a hard time getting an amino acid called tryptophan, which converts to seratonin, the so-called ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter. These individuals may also have trouble making enough melatonin, another neurotransimtter that regulates sleep.
Nutritional management of night eating involves more than adding foods into the daylight hours, though that is often a first step. Careful analysis of the eating and activity patterns, along with a thorough medical and psychosocial assessment can begin to unravel the clues to the fundamentals of the individual’s night eating patterns. Not unlike other eating disorders, treatment may involve a team that includes physicians, therapists and nutritionists working side by side with an observant, if not always alert, night eater.