There’s nothing quite so powerful as the urge to eat. Being living organisms that require sustenance and nutrition, we find it difficult to resist. It’s not like smoking, or sex, or drugs, which you can technically avoid and still live, because they aren’t really required for an individual’s survival. No, food is an absolute necessity. So what happens when that basic human requirement for life – the need to eat something – conflicts with another important factor in health – the need to sleep? Today’s edition of Dear Mark deals with exactly that: night-eating syndrome, a real and extremely frustrating eating disorder in which the afflicted awaken during the night, compelled to eat everything and anything. As you’ll see from the following question, when you wake up at 3 AM with a raw, preternatural hunger gnawing at your very core, you’re probably not going to throw together a nice spinach, kale, and watercress salad in lemon vinaigrette and poach a few pastured eggs. You’re going to grab what’s available and what’s easy and what satisfies that carnal urge:
I have no problem eating healthy foods during the day. For some reason, I get up in the middle of the night feeling hungry, and eating whatever junk food (donuts, pastries) my family has in the kitchen. I’ve tried eating more during the day, but I give in to the craving 9 times out of 10. I’ve searched the blog, also tried eating more during the day, but this is the only thing I haven’t found an article on. Not sure if it’s a physical or mental issue. This is the only part of going Primal I’ve struggled with. Any suggestions on how to stop doing this? Thanks for reading.
I did some digging around, and while experts have a pretty good handle on what’s going on – hormonally – with night-eating syndrome (PDF), they’re still trying to figure out the etiology, the cause of it all. From what we can tell, someone with night-eating syndrome has lower melatonin at night, which weakens their REM sleep. They have lower leptin, which is an appetite suppressant. Their ghrelin (an appetite stimulant) is phased forward by five hours, meaning they get hungry ahead of “when they should.” They have higher thyroid stimulating hormone (which is also seen in hypothyroid, as the thyroid is trying to “stimulate” more hormone production because it’s lacking). In response to a corticotropin-releasing hormone test, they release less cortisol, which suggests a depleted (overworked, overstressed) hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). They snack more throughout the day and tend to skip breakfast. Rather than eat solid meals, they graze. All signs seem to suggest that both troughs and spikes of their hormonal cycles are muted; since the body needs acute spikes and drops for proper functioning and signaling, this could pose a problem.
So while we don’t have the absolute cause pinned down, it seems like the HPA, or the stress response system, are involved. I do have some general advice. Some of these may not apply to you, but take a look and see if anything looks familiar.
Don’t fast and don’t skip meals. I know, I know. You just got done reading that long series where I touted the benefits of fasting, and here I go telling you not to do it. What gives? Not only do habitual night-eaters tend to avoid breakfast (which could just be a correlation), they’re also hormonally dysregulated, especially in regards to the adrenals. If you’re trying to fix an adrenal issue, you do not want to be skipping meals and playing around with fasting. Fasting is incredibly useful for the intact and the healthy, but it can do a number on people with messed up HPAs. Since nocturnal binge-eaters have a dysfunctional HPA (almost as a rule), that’s probably you.
Eat breakfast, and make it big. I suggest some sort of animal and a serving of fruit.
Eat meals, not snacks. Do three or four solid meals each day, instead of grazing.
Watch your fructose intake, particularly processed refined fructose, which can disrupt leptin.
If you’re training too much or too hard, either cut back or support it with adequate nutrition and recovery time. That means doing CrossFit once or twice a week instead of four or five times (or not at all). That means turning half of your long runs into long walks (or all of them). That means getting plenty of sleep, and if you have a bad night where you get just a few hours, don’t work out the next day (you’ll survive). If you can’t (won’t) cut back on the training, then you have to make sure you’re eating enough calories and enough carbohydrates. I don’t like the idea of filling up on carbs (and I train in such a way that doesn’t require a ton of them for that exact reason), but if you need ’em, you need ’em.
Turn off the electronics after dark, and use candles. Might I suggest playing board or card games with friends or a significant other, instead of video games or watching TV? There’s nothing like a game of Jenga by candlelight. If you’re going to use electronics or keep the lights on, get some blue-light blocking goggles. Blue light’s suppression of melatonin may not be causative in night-eating syndrome, but it certainly isn’t helping.
Consider light therapy, especially if you’re indoors during the day. We need exposure to bright light upon waking and during the day (just as we don’t need it at night), but indoor lighting simply doesn’t cut it. If sunlight isn’t an option, look into getting a lightbox. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and night-eating have a lot of crossover, and there have even been case studies showing that patients who suffer from both enjoy amelioration of their symptoms after employing light therapy.
Practice stress reduction or avoidance. Whether that’s avoiding chronic stress (desirable, but not always realistic), improving your reaction to stress, or developing coping mechanisms. Evidence points to a night eater having an over-stressed HPA, and more stress will only worsen the problem. Chris Kresser just wrapped up a 30-day “Best Your Stress” challenge, but you can still follow along and reap the benefits. Read through my previous suggestions for reducing stress as a starter, and consider meditation, too. One study found that a twenty minute muscle relaxation exercise performed daily was able to increase morning appetite and reduce late night eating.
Last, but not least, be honest as you appraise your lifestyle. Are you going to bed early enough? Are you reading this post at 12 AM in a dark room? Are you eating enough food (and the right kind) to fuel your performance? Are you training a bit too much, a bit too often, and should you perhaps tone it down and take some days off? Are you walking as much as you should? Are you reducing stress as much as you can?
While the reigning uncertainty with regards to the cause of this situation is frustrating, you can use this opportunity to try a bunch of different tactics. I hope it helps.
Readers, now it’s your turn. Have you dealt with this problem before? What worked and what didn’t? If you have any more advice, please leave it in the comment section.