Night-Eating Syndrome

Who is this person who lives in my body? She confuses and scares me sometimes. Here’s why. I’ve got night-eating syndrome, and it baffles me.

The Pattern

I wake up at 6 am most mornings, not hungry. In fact, I’m not ready to eat until late morning. I work at my desk until almost noon, when I concede to my growling stomach and have a light breakfast. Then I go back to work for the afternoon, seldom thinking about food.

At this point, despite my dismal record of weight loss, I tell myself that I’ve got my diet problem under control. I’ll make a nutritious supper after work, clean the kitchen, play games on my iPad and read for a couple of hours, and then sleep soundly through the night.

All goes according to plan until around 9 pm, when the iPad games start to bore me and I find myself hungry despite the hearty dinner I enjoyed a couple of hours earlier. I’m hungry, but my stomach tells me I do not want rabbit food. I want donuts or ice cream. I have completely forgotten any healthy diet plans made twelve hours earlier.

The Cuckoo Clock

At these times, I am reminded of the little figures in old Black Forest cuckoo clocks. Several carved miniature Bavarian figures stand on a disc that rotates with the cycles of the day. Once every twelve hours, a group rotates to the front to the tinkle of music. Twelve hours and one rotation later a new set of figures appears. The two never meet.

bavarian-clockThe morning figures are bright-eyed and full of good intentions. They have plans for my day and rules to live by. We all agree that night-time bingeing is unhealthy.

When the sun goes down, and my virtuous friends rotate to the back of the clock, they are replaced by a night crew— a group of self-indulgent rascals with entirely different standards of behavior.

The night figures tell me that something sweet and fattening is just what I need for a good night’s sleep. I could make brownies or run out for ice cream. What the heck. What’s one little binge? They whisper, “Don’t go to bed hungry tonight. You’ll never fall asleep. You know what insomnia and hunger do to you. You’ll be in hell all night.”

In the morning—after a bout of guilt and remorse—I’m again under the influence of the daytime figures. They help me rationalize the previous night’s binge. They give me their daily pep talk. We agree that I won’t repeat the mistake.

What’s the Cure?

Here are some ideas that have helped me:

Eat something for breakfast and lunch. Don’t postpone eating with the hope of delaying hunger. Fasting throughout the day sets a physiological cycle in motion that almost always ends with hunger piling up, only to become overwhelming by night. Regularly spaced food intake also keeps blood glucose levels from spiking and dropping, throwing off your metabolism.

Be sure your last meal of the day contains protein and fat. They keep you feeling full and satisfied longer than foods high in carbohydrate.

Get some exercise or participate in an interesting activity in the evening to divert your metabolism and mind away from the digestive process. You’re less likely to be hungry at bedtime and will sleep more soundly.

Before going to bed, prepare a cheese, meat and/or fruit snack in case hunger strikes during the night. With something waiting for you in the kitchen, you won’t be as tempted by sweet, fatty foods that you run across.

Drink plenty of water throughout the day and evening. Often dieters confuse hunger with thirst. Keep a bottle of water at your bedside so that, if you wake up hungry, you can see whether it will do the trick.

Chew some nicotine gum in the evening. It reduces appetite.

Ask your doctor for a sleep aid to get you through the first week or two of reduced food intake. It may help get you accustomed to sleeping without being awakened by food cravings.

My search for a cure hasn’t been entirely successful, but it’s helped. The book “Overcoming Night Eating Syndrome: A Step-by-Step Guide to Breaking the Cycle” by Kelly C. Allison, and co-authors has given me many good tips. Advice from friends and professionals along the way has been useful.