The No-Quick-Fix Guide to Eating in the Middle of the Night.


My Night Eating Syndrome (NES) started, coincidentally, when I was in my final few months of university and had absolute terror-stricken fear that I needed to step out into the working world, knowing what to do, for the rest of my life.

One might smile now looking back on this, but my sweat-inducing fear paralyzed me. NES kicked me out of bed a few times a night and helped me into the kitchen, where I unconsciously fed myself anything and everything before going back to sleep.

Night eating is just not sexy, at all. It never was, it never will be.

I’m not sure why that comes up, but it’s kind of a side mention — no matter how beautiful your bed sheets are, or the soft candles you may have burning, or even a beautiful pair of pajamas — breadcrumbs, chocolate stains and sugar-filled duvet covers and clothing just don’t make you wake up feeling like a goddess the next day.

I was reading up on blogging earlier, and found that according to one site, all my titles were wrong. They made some good points though. Phrasing headlines in a ‘How to…’ or ‘The 5 Steps Towards…’ is incredibly appealing for readers and random algorithmic viewers.

That has been exactly my problem with trying to solve what was once termed by Albert Stunkard, an American psychiatrist, and his team, Night Eating Syndrome (NES). The last I checked, they couldn’t decide if it was a sleep or an eating disorder. So, if they aren’t sure, can you imagine the variety of responses I got from doctors and people I shared with?

Celebrities who suffer, and have recently opened up, like Robbie Williams, have done huge amounts to promote some kind of normality and understanding of the condition.

I asked for advice from Google and any doctor who seemed smart. People advised medication, along with meditation, self-soothing before bedtime, and mentioned things like new pajamas and comfortable night gowns. Lavender. Homeopathy. Acupuncture. One friend even made me a warm milk drink with ghee (it did nothing).

No one must mention another solution to me unless they are a fellow sufferer. Or know their stuff.

Saying that, meditation has helped, but the intensive kind, like Vipassana. I was cured after a 10-day retreat, but I have since learnt meditation does a lot for our sleep due to the subdued fight-or-flight syndrome (induced by cortisol and the amygdala response).

I developed my condition at 21, and while it was chronic for 10 years, in the last three it has largely settled, due to a combination of growing older and wiser, increasing surrender, and medication. Finding a good psychiatrist is key.

So, what is Night Eating Syndrome? The Walden Centre for Eating Disorders in the US says the following:

“Night Eating Syndrome is an eating disorder, characterized by a delayed circadian pattern of food intake. Night Eating Syndrome is not the same as binge eating disorder, although individuals with Night Eating Syndrome are often binge-eaters. It differs from binge-eating in that the amount of food consumed in the evening/night is not necessarily objectively large nor is a loss of control over food intake required.

It was originally described by Dr. Albert Stunkard in 1955, and is currently included in the “Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder” category of the DSM-5.”

I think I’d describe NES as a circadian-based sleep eating disorder. Historically I have had little control over it, and the sleep side of it has made me feel more helpless. It also set me up for disordered eating in the day (restrictive) because I was afraid of weight gain. Most of all, the shame has surpassed anything I’ve ever experienced.

Taking this secret to mental health practitioners, and now friends or family, is my biggest breakthrough. I can even write a blog on it now!

Symbolically, losing control in the night, and I guess all my addictions, are simply a mirror for the surrender that people with fear-based control patterns need to move into. AA speaks of this beautifully. It is Step 2 in their 12-Step recovery manual.

It is important to connect night eating and sleep eating to two things.

Firstly, physiology matters. Stress and anxiety, and a tendency (influenced by genes?) to comfort oneself with food are a big factor. These vary from person to person, and can be passed on in families. For example, my older sister is a night-eater too.

And then we are influenced by life-stressors. Subjective from one person to another. Each of us. One person’s breaking point or difficulty is not the same as mine. When it came to my stressors, conflict or anger were a couple of them.

A raging fight with a jealous ex saw me head into the chocolate digestive biscuits. I didn’t know how to process these feelings and deal with them — well, that was in my 20’s; thank you, 30’s! And fear of a scary boss, or burnout, caused me to sleep-travel to carb planet.

I am largely healed from NES. It has taken over a decade, and still I battle some nights. Last night it was a tub of hummus. But recovery for me is different now — hummus is easier to integrate the next day than a tub of ice cream. I am more conscious when I wake up, and I take rest and relaxation and life decisions more seriously.

The humility and capacity for empathy and acceptance are lessons I am not sure I would have developed were it not for the helplessness and difficulty caused by my condition. But I’m not ready to say a sincere Thank You yet. That’ll happen on the day I have learnt to celebrate suffering more authentically.


Alex O’Donoghue is a South African Irish 30-something. She has just broken through her fear of writing and being judged. In the courage light, she is starting to submit her voice. She loves cats, coffee, learning to be embodied, and community of high-quality people. She has a weird laugh, laughs a lot and can’t click. You could contact her via Miss Muse.


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Rebelle Society
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