Imagine waking up to find a trail of cookie crumbs on the floor and empty food containers littering the kitchen counter and you had no idea how they got there. Either Hansel and Gretel broke into the house or someone is playing a practical joke on you.
Or, you have a bonafide sleep disorder that causes sufferers to eat voraciously while they sleep.
Up to 1 million adults could be sleep eaters, a possible contributing cause of obesity. In fact, a good percentage of patients who attend obesity clinics have been diagnosed with a sleep-eating condition.
The Bane of Bedtime Banquets
Researchers are beginning to discover factors that link appetite, sleep and body weight. And as bizarre as it may sound, conditions that cause sleep eating may the reason some people continue gain weight despite their best weight-loss efforts. Two seemingly related conditions may offer more clues to this weighty issue.
Sleep-Related Eating Disorder
Nighttime sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) is classified as parasomnia, a category of sleep disorders that cause a person to do unusual things during sleep such as sleepwalk (somnambulism), scream (night terrors) and wriggle about (periodic limb movement disorder).
People with SRED appear to be sleeping, but get up and make a beeline to the kitchen. Sufferers are undiscerning foragers. Beside the usual snacks, uncooked foods, toxic substances and inedible materials can also make the menu. Never mind that the steel wool pad tastes like, well, steel wool. Down the hatch it goes. And some unusual food (and non-food) combinations could make your stomach turn. But that is not the only downside. Because sleep eaters awaken a few times a night, they never experience a full night of uninterrupted sleep which can leave them feeling like they never slept at all. This could be severely impact next-day functioning.
Not only can it sabotage a well-balanced diet, sleep eating can up the risk for cuts and burns if chopping or cooking takes place. It can also be life threatening, especially for people with food allergies and diabetes, who must tightly monitor and gauge food intake for proper insulin management.
The condition is a quite a mystery and the cause elusive. Many people with SRED started out as sleepwalkers or have been diagnosed with another sleep disorder, which points to a defect in sleep centers as the root cause.
Sleep is an extremely complicated biological process influenced by hormones and intertwined feedback systems. When the mechanism that controls wakefulness and sleep during a normal sleep cycles fails, a person can remain "asleep" but continue to walk, eat, or perform other activities (some people get in their cars and drive!). And paradoxically, SRED can also be brought on by certain sleep medications, which some people take to help them fall and stay asleep.