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How to stop night eating syndrome

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Someone with night eating syndrome (NES) wakes up during the night and eats. This often happens many times in a single night. Though some people may mistake it for binge eating disorder or sleep-related eating disorder, it is not the same. Night eating syndrome is a separate condition with its own distinct set of symptoms.

 minutes read
Last updated on 
April 4, 2022
February 26, 2023
How to stop night eating syndrome
In this article

What is night eating syndrome?

Night eating syndrome, which falls under the other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), is an eating disorder involving repeated episodes of night eating after a person wakes up from sleeping. It can also involve eating significant amounts of food after dinner. NES occurs alongside insomnia, in which a person experiences disrupted sleep. (1)

People with night eating syndrome are awake when they eat, and they can remember eating the next day. (1) Those who struggle with this condition often feel like they aren’t able to fall back to sleep if they don’t eat. (2)

Night eating syndrome occurs in about 1% of the population. Some people are more likely to struggle with this condition than others. It’s more common among individuals who: (2)

  • Have co-occurring anxiety or depression
  • Misuse alcohol or drugs
  • Live in a higher-weight body
  • Struggle with another eating disorder

Symptoms of night eating syndrome

Someone struggling with night eating syndrome may experience the following symptoms: (2,3)

  • Lack of hunger early in the day
  • Delaying their first meal for several hours
  • Eating more than 25% of their daily food intake after the evening meal
  • Waking up to eat in the middle of the night, often several times per night
  • Sleep disturbances, including trouble falling and staying asleep
  • Significant distress related to night eating
  • Believing they need to eat in order to return to sleep
  • Anxious or depressive moods that tend to worsen at night

Essentially, someone with night eating syndrome experiences a disruption to their circadian eating and sleeping pattern. A circadian rhythm is a natural process that regulates our sleep and wake cycles. It is influenced by many different cues, including lightness and darkness.

Strategies for overcoming night eating syndrome

If you suspect you or someone you know may be struggling with frequent sleep disturbances and night-time eating, there are some strategies to try to improve sleeping and eating patterns, such as:

  • Space your meals out throughout the day, even if you aren’t hungry in the morning or during the day. This may be a gradual process, so don’t force yourself to consume entire meals at first. Simply try to introduce a light snack or breakfast and work your way up.
  • Create a relaxing nighttime routine that may include drinking tea, journaling, reading, meditating, or anything else you find calming. Turn off your screens well before bed time.
  • Use light to help regulate your circadian rhythm. This may include making sure to go outside in the bright light early in the morning or using a sunlight lamp, as well as limiting light exposure in the evening.
  • Take melatonin, a natural hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Your brain normally produces melatonin in response to darkness, so taking it will tell your body that it’s time to sleep. Make sure to talk to your healthcare provider before taking it.
  • Educate yourself on night eating syndrome, as well as sleep hygiene.
  • Learn and practice muscle relaxation techniques, which can relieve anxiety and stress.
  • Challenge your thoughts and feelings related to eating, especially the false belief that you need to eat in order to fall back to sleep.
  • Seek out support in online or in-person peer support groups.
  • Eat well-balanced meals throughout the day.
  • Engage in physical activity during the day, such as hiking, walking, working out, playing a sport, or playing with your dog or child. Regular exercise can help improve your sleep.

These tips can help you have better control over your eating and sleeping cycles. But sometimes self-care and new behaviors aren’t enough to overcome night eating syndrome. Especially if it co-occurs with other conditions, such as a mental health disorder, substance use disorder, or another eating disorder.

Treatment for night eating syndrome

Asking for help can be hard. And it can be challenging to recover from night eating syndrome on your own. But fortunately, professional treatment is available. Seeking out a qualified healthcare professional with eating disorders expertise to assess your eating and sleeping patterns to determine if you’d benefit from eating disorder treatment is the first step. 

Currently, more research needs to be conducted to determine the best course of treatment for night eating syndrome. But many providers have found success with the following treatment modalities: (2,4)

  • Antidepressants: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can treat co-occurring anxiety and depression and help regulate mood.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT examines the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to help you change your distressing behaviors and teach you how to use coping skills when you experience negative emotions.
  • Light therapy: Commonly used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), light therapy has been used to treat the symptoms of night eating syndrome and regulate circadian rhythm.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: This is a therapeutic intervention that involves tensing various muscles and then releasing them, which can relieve stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms, fatigue, irritability, and anger. 
  • Behavior therapy: Behavior therapies typically used to treat anxiety and mood disorders may be helpful in treating night eating syndrome. This may involve setting treatment goals and offering rewards for meeting these goals. Other examples include leaving reminder notes and restricting access to food during the night.

At Within Health, our virtual treatment program can help you overcome night eating syndrome by providing high-quality, specialized care directly in your home environment. Through our treatment app, you’ll receive an individualized treatment plan. This can consist of individual therapy, group counseling, group meals, experiential therapy like art therapy, nutritional therapy, and meetings with your care partner, who will be a supportive resource throughout your program.

Fostering a caring community is a major priority for us, as we believe cultivating meaningful connections is the foundation of making a full recovery. If you are struggling with night eating syndrome, positive change is possible. And we are here for you every step of the way.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
  2. Cleveland Clinic. (2021). Night Eating Syndrome (NES).
  3. University of Michigan Health. (2020). Night Eating Syndrome.
  4. Allison, K. C., & Tarves, E. P. (2011). Treatment of night eating syndrome. The Psychiatric cCinics of North America, 34(4), 785–796. 


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