How to Recognize and Treat Sleep-Related Eating Disorders

How to Recognize and Treat Sleep-Related Eating Disorders

Do you ever wake up in the morning to find empty food wrappers or containers near your bed, without any memory of consuming them? Or do you find yourself constantly raiding your fridge or pantry during the middle of the night? If so, you may be experiencing a sleep-related eating disorder (SRED).

SRED is a parasomnia that affects approximately 1-5% of adults. It can cause individuals to eat during non-REM sleep stages, leading to unwanted weight gain and other health issues. In this article, we will discuss the symptoms and causes of SRED as well as different treatment options available to help manage this disorder.

What is a sleep-related eating disorder (SRED)?

A sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) is a type of parasomnia, which refers to abnormal behaviors that occur during sleep. People with SRED usually eat compulsively during the night while they are asleep. This can lead to excessive weight gain and other health problems if not treated properly.

SRED usually affects adults and can have a negative impact on their daily lives. The disorder is often characterized by episodes of binge eating at night, often involving high-calorie foods that the person may not even enjoy when awake. In some cases, people with SRED might also experience memory loss or difficulty recalling what they ate during the night.

The exact cause of SRED is still unknown, but it has been linked to other sleep disorders such as sleepwalking or REM sleep behavior disorder. Treatment options include medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes such as avoiding certain foods before bedtime.

What are the risk factors for sleep-eating disorders?

Sleep-Related Eating Disorder, commonly known as SRED, is a condition that causes individuals to eat while they are asleep. The prevalence of this disorder is not yet determined, but it is more frequently observed in women than men. According to recent studies, women represent around 65 to 80 percent of SRED patients. The onset of SRED typically occurs between the ages of 22 to 29 and tends to persist as a chronic problem.

SRED may arise as a standalone condition or as a side effect of certain medications used for depression and sleep disorders such as Ambien and Lunesta. It is not uncommon for individuals with SRED to have multiple sleep disorders, with sleepwalking being the most commonly associated parasomnia. Interestingly, over half of all individuals with SRED had experienced another parasomnia prior to developing it and many had a history of sleepwalking during childhood.

Sleep-Related Eating Disorder (SRED) is a rare but potentially serious sleep disorder that affects roughly 1% of the population. People with SRED will often experience episodes of eating or drinking while asleep, with little to no recollection of these events when they wake up. Although it can occur on its own, SRED is often associated with other sleep disorders such as Restless Legs Syndrome, Periodic Limb Movement Disorder, Sleep Apnea, Irregular Sleep-Wake Rhythm, and Sleep-Related Dissociative Disorders.

Restless Legs Syndrome is a neurological disorder that causes an irresistible urge to move the legs due to discomfort or pain. Periodic Limb Movement Disorder is characterized by involuntary movements during sleep which can disrupt sleep patterns and cause excessive daytime fatigue. Sleep Apnea occurs when breathing stops and starts repeatedly during sleep causing brief periods of wakefulness throughout the night.

Sleep-related eating disorder (SRED)

What are the types of sleep-related eating disorders?

Sleep-related eating disorders (SREDs) are a group of medical conditions that fall under the category of parasomnias, which are sleep disorders that involve abnormal movements, behaviors, emotions, perceptions, or dreams. SREDs usually manifest as episodes of consuming food and drink during partial arousals from sleep without full awareness or control. These episodes often occur at night and can be quite disruptive to normal sleep patterns. There are two main types of SREDs:

  • Drug-induced sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) is a condition that occurs when individuals consume food during sleep, usually after midnight. This disorder can be triggered by certain medications used to treat insomnia, such as benzodiazepines and zolpidem. Research has shown that SRED affects about 1-3% of the general population, but it’s more common in women than men. 
  • Primary sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) is a type of parasomnia that involves recurrent episodes of compulsive eating during the night. Primary SRED typically affects people who have other sleep disorders, such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome, or sleepwalking. Unlike secondary SRED, which can be caused by medication use or substance abuse, primary SRED does not result from taking medications. However, using sedatives and other drugs may worsen symptoms in people with primary SRED.

SRED and NES are two distinct phenomena that can be easily confused. While both involve eating during the night, they differ in significant ways. SRED, or a sleep-related eating disorder, is a sleep behavior disorder that causes people to eat while they are asleep or partially awake. People with SRED may not remember their episodes of nocturnal eating and consume foods that are not typically part of their diet.

In contrast, night eating syndrome (NES) is an eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of nocturnal feeding coupled with morning anorexia. Unlike SRED, people with NES eat while they are fully awake and remember consuming food in the morning. They also tend to consume more than half of their daily caloric intake after dinner. As a result, individuals who suffer from NES often experience disturbed sleep patterns due to repeated awakenings during the night.

What causes SRED?

Sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) is a condition where an individual consumes food while asleep and has no recollection of doing so upon waking. Although it has been recognized as a distinct disorder since the early 1990s, experts have yet to pinpoint a singular cause of SRED. Research into the causes of this disorder is ongoing, but current studies suggest that it may be related to other sleep disorders such as sleepwalking (somnambulism), restless legs syndrome (RLS), obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), narcolepsy, and periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD).

While the exact cause of SRED remains uncertain, some medications have been identified as potential triggers for this condition. Zolpidem, which is commonly used to treat insomnia under the brand name Ambien, has been shown to cause sleep-related eating in some individuals.

Symptoms – Sleep-Related Eating Disorder

Symptoms of SRED typically include:

Frequent sleep eating: Most people with NES experience these episodes every night, but some may only have them three or four times a week. In some cases, these episodes can happen multiple times a night. The exact cause of NES is unknown, but it has been linked to certain medications like antidepressants and hypnotics. Stress and anxiety can also trigger NES in some individuals.

No memory of episodes: If you have SRED, or Sleep-Related Eating Disorder, you might wake up to find that you’ve eaten during the night without any recollection of it. SRED is a type of parasomnia that causes people to eat while they are asleep. It can be dangerous as individuals with this disorder tend to consume large quantities of food, including items that may be harmful or inedible.

Eating toxic or non-food substances: 

While people with SRED may consume regular food items such as leftovers or snacks, they are also known to eat non-food items like coffee grounds, bleach, or cigarette butts. This can be dangerous and even life-threatening in some cases.

Eating non-food items can expose individuals to harmful chemicals and toxins present in these substances. Bleach can cause chemical burns and damage to internal organs when ingested, while cigarette butts contain nicotine which can be toxic in large amounts. Consuming raw or frozen foods like uncooked meat or unwashed produce increases the risk of food poisoning due to bacteria such as salmonella and E.coli present in these items.

Accidental injuries: One of the most common types of accidents associated with SERD is cutting or burning oneself while cooking. Due to being in an altered state during an episode of SERD, individuals may not be aware they are holding a knife or touching a hot pan until it’s too late. This can result in serious burns, cuts, or even amputations. Additionally, those with SERD might also start fires by accidentally leaving stove burners on or placing flammable objects too close to heat sources.

Health consequences: One of the most common symptoms of SRED is weight gain. This can be attributed to the fact that individuals with this disorder tend to consume high-calorie foods during their nocturnal eating episodes. The lack of physical activity during sleep also contributes to weight gain. Furthermore, many people with SRED report feeling fatigued throughout the day due to disrupted sleep patterns and frequent awakenings caused by their nighttime eating habits.

Sleep-related eating disorder (SRED)

How do healthcare providers diagnose SRED?

Sleep Related Eating Disorder (SRED) is a parasomnia characterized by recurrent episodes of eating during the night, often with no memory of doing so. Although it may seem like a harmless quirk, SRED can actually have serious consequences for your health and safety. People with SRED are at risk of choking, burns, and other injuries caused by cooking or consuming food while asleep. In addition to these physical risks, SRED can also lead to poor sleep quality and disruption of your natural sleep-wake cycle.

If you suspect that you may have SRED, it’s important to see a sleep doctor as soon as possible. During your appointment, the doctor will ask detailed questions about your symptoms and medical history in order to make an accurate diagnosis. You’ll need to provide information about when the eating binges began, how often they occur, and how long they last.

If you are experiencing SERD, it is important to inform your doctor if you have ever had any other sleep disorder. This information will help the doctor determine the cause of your current sleeping difficulties and suggest an appropriate treatment. Additionally, it is a good idea to ask family members about their sleep patterns as hereditary factors may contribute to your condition.

Keeping a sleep diary for two weeks can also be helpful in diagnosing any underlying issues that may be causing your disrupted sleep. By recording when you go to bed and wake up, how long it takes you to fall asleep, and whether or not you wake up during the night, your doctor can gain insight into your sleeping habits. This valuable data will give clues about the root of the problem and help determine what course of action should be taken.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, a polysomnography test may be recommended by your physician.

How Are Sleep-Related Eating Disorders Treated?

If you have drug-induced Sleep-Related Eating Disorder (SRED), one of the first steps your healthcare provider may recommend is stopping the medication that is causing the issue. Additionally, your provider may suggest trying a different medication that does not cause SRED as a side effect. It’s important to note that SRED can also occur in individuals who are not taking medications, so if you’re experiencing any unusual eating behaviors during sleep, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider.

Other sleep disturbances, such as Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) or sleep apnea, require specific treatment plans. For RLS specifically, treatment options may include medications like dopamine agonists or iron supplements. Sleep apnea treatment often involves lifestyle changes such as weight loss and quitting smoking in addition to medical interventions like Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy.

Lifestyle changes are often recommended by healthcare providers to improve overall health and well-being. These lifestyle changes can include managing stress levels, practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation, and practicing good sleep hygiene. The importance of these lifestyle modifications cannot be overstated, as they have been shown to reduce the risk of developing various chronic diseases.

One key aspect of lifestyle modification is stress management. High levels of stress can lead to numerous health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and depression. Practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation can help manage stress levels effectively. Additionally, getting enough sleep is crucial for maintaining good health. Good sleep hygiene includes avoiding caffeine, screens, and too much alcohol before bed, as well as taking steps to ensure you get more sleep.


Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been shown to be effective in the treatment of primary sleep-related eating disorder (SRED). This condition is characterized by episodes of compulsive and excessive eating during nighttime sleep, without any conscious awareness. These episodes can lead to significant weight gain and other health problems if left untreated. One possible explanation for SRED is that it may be linked to imbalances in certain brain chemicals, such as serotonin.

Many experts believe that there is a close relationship between eating disorders and sleep disturbances. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, around 50-80% of people with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder also suffer from insomnia. This means that sleep problems may be both a symptom and a cause of eating disorders.

Research has shown that people with eating disorders have altered levels of hormones such as ghrelin and leptin that regulate appetite, energy expenditure, mood, and sleep. Disruptions in these hormones can cause changes in circadian rhythms leading to irregular sleep patterns. In addition to hormonal imbalances, the emotional distress associated with eating disorders can also affect sleep quality.

On the other hand, inadequate or poor-quality sleep can contribute to the development or exacerbation of eating disorders.

Research suggests that individuals with certain personality traits may be more likely to struggle with weight management and healthy eating habits. Specifically, those who are anxious, depressed, perfectionistic, and self-critical may find it challenging to maintain a healthy relationship with food. These personality features can contribute to disordered eating patterns, such as binge-eating or restrictive diets.

Anxiety and depression can lead to emotional eating as a way to cope with negative feelings. Perfectionism and self-criticism can create unrealistic expectations around food choices and body image, leading to intense guilt or shame when those expectations aren’t met. These factors can all contribute to an unhealthy cycle of overeating followed by punishing restriction or excessive exercise in an attempt to compensate for the perceived failure.


In conclusion, sleep-related eating disorders can be difficult to recognize and diagnose, but they can have serious consequences if left untreated. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of a sleep-related eating disorder, it is important to seek medical attention. Treatment options may include cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. With proper treatment and support, those with sleep-related eating disorders can manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Remember that seeking help is the first step toward recovery.

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