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Tuesday, 20 April, 1999, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
Night bingeing recognised as a disorder
Raiding the fridge may be a sign of a medical disorder
Ever felt an uncontrollable urge to raid the fridge late at night? You could be suffering from a medical condition.

Scientists believe that 1.5% of the general population might suffer from a condition known as Night Eating Syndrome.

Dr Albert Stunkard, who first spotted the symptoms in 1955, said the condition was not merely a habit but a real clinical illness marked by changes in hormone levels.

Most people who suffer from the syndrome are prone to stress, and to poor sleep, often waking three to four times a night.

Each time they wake they head for the kitchen to eat a "snack" of high carbohydrate food such as biscuits, cakes or crisps.

Night eaters take in fewer calories than other people during the day and often skip breakfast, Dr Stunkard told fellow experts at the International Conference on Eating Disorders in London.

But between about 9pm and the following morning they might consume half their total calorie intake.

While they do not gorge themselves, night eaters consume on average 500 calories a day more than normal eaters.

As a result, many of them are overweight.

Officially recognised

Depressed woman
Night Eating Syndrome is linked to depression
Dr Stunkard expects to publish the first officially recognised description of Night Eating Syndrome in an American scientific journal in about two or three months time.

He said night eaters suffered three separate problems - an eating disorder, a sleeping disorder and a mood disorder.

As they became more anxious and depressed during the night, their eating increases.

Dr Stunkard, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, suspected sufferers were eating to help themselves sleep by boosting levels of a brain nerve message chemical called serotonin.

He said: "I think they are eating to medicate themselves because the eating is very high in carbohydrates, and carbohydrates are likely to increase the serotonin in the brain, and that stimulates sleep.

"I think stress triggers it but you have to have a specific kind of make-up to respond in this way, and I think that's genetic."

He said almost 10% of the obese patients he saw at his eating disorder clinic in Philadelphia probably suffered from Night Eating Syndrome.

However, not all sufferers were obese.

He added that one study suggested that in the general population about 1.5% of people may have the condition. In Britain that would mean around 900,000 people.

The illness had not been seen in children and probably did not afflict adolescents.

It was likely to be more common among women than men.

Hormone link

Tests had shown that people with the condition experienced a decrease during the night in levels of two hormones linked to sleep and appetite, melatonin and leptin.

At the same time levels of the stress hormone cortisol, rose.

This suggested that it may be possible to treat night eating with melatonin and leptim to promote sleep and reduce feelings of hunger.

Asked what damage habitual night eating might do, Dr Stunkard said: "The major harm is that people are made very distraught by it. They don't get enough sleep and a lot of them are sleeping during the day. It may also contribute to obesity because these people are eating more than other people."

He said carbohydrates stimulated the production of insulin, which led to elevated levels in the brain of tryptophans - the substances from which serotonin is derived.

As well as helping people sleep, serotonin is a "feel-good" chemical which wards off depression.

Dr Stunkard said this explained why high carbohydrate products are often described as "comfort food".

See also:

20 Jan 99 | Health
Dental threat of snacking
19 Mar 99 | Health
Anorexia risk of moderate dieting
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