Overview

Sleep-related eating disorder involves frequent episodes of out-of-control eating and drinking behaviors while in a state of sleep. You may be partially or fully unaware of your behavior while preparing and eating food, with little or no memory of these actions the next morning.

Sleep-related eating disorder can be dangerous because you could injure yourself during food preparation or eat inedible or toxic items. Sleep-related eating disorder can also have an impact on your health due to weight gain and obesity from eating high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods.

Sleep-related eating disorder can be associated with certain medications, eating disorders and other sleep disorders. Addressing these issues often resolves sleep-related eating disorder.

Symptoms

Sleep-related eating disorder is a parasomnia — abnormal activity or behavior that occurs while you're falling asleep, sleeping or waking up.

Episodes of sleep-related eating disorder occur in the first half of the night after you've been sleeping and include:

  • Frequent episodes, generally nightly, of eating and drinking in an out-of-control manner
  • Impaired consciousness while preparing and eating food
  • Little or no memory of these actions the next morning
  • Eating high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods or odd combinations of food
  • Possibly eating inedible or toxic substances, such as frozen foods, coffee grounds, cleaning solutions or cigarette butts
  • Possibly experiencing injuries or engaging in dangerous food preparation activities
  • Not being easily awakened or redirected during the episode
  • Experiencing a negative impact on your health from the nighttime eating

When to see a doctor

Sleep-related eating disorder can be dangerous and impact your health and safety. If you have any of the symptoms listed above, see your doctor.

Causes

Sleep-related eating disorder usually occurs during non-rapid eye movement sleep in the first half of the night and is associated with the transition from non-rapid eye movement to arousal during sleep.

The exact mechanism for why it occurs is not known, but sleep-related eating disorder often occurs in people who have a history of sleepwalking, so these conditions may be related.

Risk factors

Sleep-related eating disorder is more common in women and typically starts in the teenage years or the early 20s.

Increased risk of developing sleep-related eating disorder is associated with:

  • Other sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, sleepwalking, narcolepsy and restless legs syndrome
  • Hypnotic sleep medications, such as zolpidem (Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo, Zolpimist), and certain other medications, such as antidepressants or antipsychotics
  • Having a daytime eating disorder, such as bulimia or anorexia
  • Having a mental health disorder, such as stress, anxiety or depression
  • Having a first-degree relative — a parent, child or sibling — with sleep-related eating disorder or sleepwalking
  • Experiencing sleep deprivation

Complications

A sleep-related eating disorder can result in:

  • Dangerous use of kitchen appliances, falls, cuts, burns, choking, injury from eating something inedible or toxic, or eating something you're allergic to
  • Health problems, such as weight gain, poor diabetes control or dental cavities
  • Feelings of guilt and helplessness over the lack of control
  • Daytime tiredness from disrupted sleep