Nocturnal Sleep Eating Disorder: What Is It and What Causes It?

Sleep disorders are relatively rare, but their effects are varied. And, while they are clearly unpleasant for sufferers, they are fascinating from a psychological perspective. Sleepwalking is perhaps the best known of the common sleeping disorders and it is believed to affect between 1% and 15% of the general population.

While most of us have heard of sleepwalking, and probably even know someone who has experienced it at some point in their lives, there is much less awareness of the more complex and, thankfully, rarer forms of the condition. Among these is nocturnal sleeping disorder.

What Is Nocturnal Sleep Eating Disorder?

Nocturnal sleep eating disorder, also known as sleep eating, and somnambulistic eating, consists of two components; first is somnambulism, more commonly known as sleepwalking. The second is the eating disorder component where the sufferer consumes excessive amounts of food while they are in this state.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this condition is that, while the basic features of the somnambulistic episodes remain the same, there are often subtle differences in certain aspects of its presentation and generally no two cases will present in precisely the same way. In most cases the episodes occur within two or three hours of the patient falling asleep and tend to resolve relatively quickly although the exact timescales often vary.

In many cases the combinations of food that sufferers eat during an episode are bizarre and completely unlike the kinds of food that they would eat normally. What separates nocturnal sleeping disorder from other similar disorders is that sufferers of nocturnal sleeping disorder are more likely to create mess and to potentially harm themselves, making it one of the more scary sleep disorders. This is in contrast to the much more common night eating syndrome, in which the sufferers are able to prepare food in the same manner they would while fully conscious.


As with other sleeping disorders the treatments for nocturnal eating disorder revolve around psychological therapies and counselling. Doctors have been working hard to devise a treatment strategy which can be used on all patients but so far have been unsuccessful. In addition to the usual cognitive behavioural therapies and other psychological treatments, there are a growing number of medications which have shown promise.

What Causes It?

Interestingly enough, doctors have noted a higher than usual incidence (27%) of sufferers of nocturnal sleep eating disorder suffering from co-morbid restless leg syndrome. Medications such as L-Dopa, clonazepam, and some opioids have been shown to be effective at treating the condition in many people. This suggests that there may be some kind of overlap in the physiological causes of both conditions although doctors have still been unable to definitively establish the root causes.

The first case of nocturnal sleep eating disorder was recorded in the mid 1950’s, however there were only half a dozen cases recorded in the medical literature over the course of the proceeding 36 years. As awareness of the condition has grown there have been more diagnoses and it is believed that, owing to the similarity of nocturnal sleep eating disorder to a number of other sleep disorders, it has meant that incidents of the condition have been under-reported.

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