Many of us have seen breathless news headlines about sleep-eating, tales of people who — under the influence of a sleep medication or a sleep disorder — shuffle down to the kitchen and inhale a whole pie or ransack their work lunches for the week. Though these stories conjure cartoonish images of hapless characters coming to while in their pj’s aghast at the cherry filling smeared across their lips or wondering if a particularly well-mannered bear got into their fridge overnight, there’s nothing funny — or harmless — about sleep-eating.
According to Dr. Sujay Kansagra, director of Duke University’s pediatric neurology department, only a fraction of the percentage of people already prone to sleepwalking will head to the kitchen and start eating. The name of this extremely rare condition is sleep-related eating disorder, and the people who are afflicted with it have quite literally no idea what they’re doing as they eat, and they don’t remember anything in the morning. Of course, there’s the obvious health risks that come with overindulgence, such as consuming excessive numbers of calories at a time when our metabolisms are naturally slowing down.
However, there are other risks that are more immediate. “People with sleep-related eating disorder aren’t aware of what they’re eating and may try to eat things that are harmful,” Kansagra tells SheKnows. Examples include “scalding hot drinks, sandwiches made entirely of salt or even frozen foods straight out of the freezer.” An overstuffed belly may be painful, but getting salmonella from eating undercooked foods is infinitely worse.
Dr. Michael Jay Nusbaum, surgical director of the Metabolic Medicine and Weight Control Center for Atlantic Health and chief of bariatric surgery at Morristown Medical Center, tells SheKnows that people with SERD feel out of control when they’re eating or drinking. He says these patients “have become sickened from eating raw meats, uncooked bacon, spices, tea leaves, coffee grounds and even bananas with the peels still on.” Worse yet, some people with SERD are also afflicted with pica, a condition in which a person will try to eat something that isn’t meant for human consumption, such as batteries, cotton balls, cigarette butts and even safety pins.
Even if they don’t become desperately sick from what they’ve binged, these patients often report feeling too full to eat much during the day and dealing with the sudden unexpected weight gain. “When pushed, some patients will recall vague memories of these episodes at night. They may even confess that food seems to be disappearing from their kitchen or fridge and they have no idea where it is going,” Nusbaum says.
According to Nusbaum, people who are dealing with an inexplicable weight gain, waking up to mysterious food-related illnesses or walking into their kitchen to find the room and/or fridge utterly torn apart should contact their doctors. Simply locking the fridge and the cabinets isn’t enough — a full medical intervention is necessary. He also says friends and family members who live with someone who has SERD should follow some of the basic rules about confronting a sleepwalker — don’t engage with them directly because they may lash out or even get violent. Instead, tell them what you’ve observed and encourage them to get professional help.
As for what that help might look like, Dr. Andrew Stiehm, sleep specialist with Allina Health and United Lung & Sleep Clinic, tells SheKnows that treatment for SERD starts with behavioral therapies. First, practitioners will try to make sure their patients are getting enough sleep and encourage them to forsake alcohol and sleeping pills. Stiehm says zolpidem — better known by its brand name, Ambien — in particular can cause sleep-eating.
“We ask them to avoid environmental disturbances that could disrupt sleep — like a dog jumping on the bed or a spouse coming to bed at a different time,” he says. “We make sure the bedroom environment is safe, such as making sure the windows are closed and locked. If those [options] fail, there are medications we can use.”
Enhancing the quality of sleep helps treat the disorder, he explains, because SERD is a non-rapid eye-movement arousal parasomnia — meaning people wake up because something stimulates them. In the case of sleep-eating, hunger is stimulus enough to partially awaken them — but their brain continues to try to stay asleep. The sleep-eating occurs when part of the brain is awake and part of the brain is asleep, Stiehm adds.
If you or someone you know deals with sleep-eating, it’s best to talk to your doctor about it. Sleep-eating isn’t some Looney Tunes kind of malady. It isn’t cute or funny — in fact, it can have potentially harmful or even deadly consequences.