Psychologist Barbara Greenberg, PhD, remembers a patient who would eat little or nothing for breakfast or lunch and do most of her eating after dinner. Then she would rise during the night to eat some more — and have no recollection of it.

The surprise would come the following morning. “She’d wake up the next day and see a mess in the kitchen,” says Greenberg, a psychologist in Fairfield County, Connecticut. 

Greenberg's patient had a condition known as sleep-related eating disorder, or SRED. It’s more common that you might think, with study estimates ranging from 1 to 5 percent of the population.

We’ve all heard of sleepwalking, which occurs when people rise from bed and stroll around while they’re still fast asleep. People who sleep-eat take that one step further. They get up while still sleeping, walk to the kitchen and raid the refrigerator.

It may sound comical, but sleep-eating is scary stuff. People may cut or burn themselves, trip over furniture or eat bizarre, even dangerous items such as cigarettes, coffee beans or cleaning solutions.

Sleep eaters also tend to eat excessively. They often consume high-fat items such as ice cream, peanut butter and cake, triggering weight gain and increasing the risk for diabetes and other diseases. While most patients have no memory of their nocturnal eating, experts say, some sleep-eaters have vivid memories of their nighttime feasts.

Causes and signs of sleep-eating 

Most sleep-eaters are women and for many, their sleep-eating behavior is related to using (or discontinuing) prescription sedatives or psychiatric drugs such as Ambien, Zyprexa or Risperdal, according to an article in the journal Psychiatry. More recent journal articles have also implicated the psychiatric drugs Seroquel and Remeron in the disorder. 

In addition, people who have sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or sleepwalking are at great risk of sleep-eating, as are those who suffer from anorexia, stress or depression, according to the American Sleep Association.

Related:  Can’t Lose Weight? Check Your Sleep

Until recently sleep-eating was considered separate from another condition called night-eating disorder. People with night-eating disorder are nocturnal eaters but are fully awake, while sleep-eaters manage to doze and eat at the same time, sometimes dining repeatedly.However, a 2013 study in Sleep Medicine suggested the two conditions are opposite poles of the same clinical condition — a statement that resonates with many sleep experts.

The most typical signs of eating while sleeping are:

  • Unexplained messes in the kitchen
  • Plates or food crumbs in bed with no memory of putting them there
  • Little or no appetite in the morning
  • Mysterious weight gain

Getting help 

If you have sleep-eat disorder and feel mortified about it, you may be reluctant to seek help from a professional. That’s a mistake. “Don’t try to tackle it on your own,” she says. “You need to get help. This eating disorder is associated with a lot of shame — and that’s the worst human emotion.”

Related:  7 Surprising Reasons to Get 7 (or More) Hours of Sleep

Sleep-eating is a medical condition like any other, so consult a doctor or therapist experienced in treating sleep-related disorders.

A clinician will want to do a good assessment by asking lots of questions: Are you drinking a lot of coffee during the day? Do you have nighttime eating habits? Are you using alcohol or drugs? Are you anxious or depressed? Are you getting enough sleep?

In some cases, your doctor may suggest you go through a sleep study. This involves being monitored as you sleep with video cameras and devices that measure your heart rate, respiration and sleep state. But most of the time, a change in medication and getting help for underlying depression or anxiety can turn things around, Greenberg says.

“Some people really benefit from stress-management techniques and developing good sleep hygiene,” Greenberg says.

Until your problem with SRED is resolved, the American Sleep Association makes a practical suggestion: Clear all dangerous items that could be ingested out of the kitchen and make sure there are no trip hazards on the way to the kitchen that could cause an accident.

Whatever the cause of your sleep-eating problem is, a good therapist or counselor should be able to help you resolve it. Sleeping and eating should both be pleasant—but you’re not likely to enjoy either if you’re doing both at the same time.

Related:  Block Blue Light and Sleep Better Tonight

Rob Waters served for six years as a health, science and biotech reporter for Bloomberg News and has also worked for WebMD and Time Inc. He has written for BusinessWeek, Sierra, Salon, Psychotherapy Networker and the Los Angeles Times, and co-authored From Boys to Men, a book on men’s health for Simon & Schuster.