The Dagwood Syndrome: Night eating and insomnia

Q:  “For the past 18 years I have been waking up in the middle of the night with extreme food cravings.  So I get up and eat a few times a night, every night.  All this getting up and eating can’t be healthy.  Any suggestions?”

A:  What you are experiencing has one of the great descriptive names in sleep science:  the Dagwood Syndrome.

The late Peter Hauri, former head of the Mayo Sleep Clinic, describes seeing this in his clinic.  To treat this, first get a checkup to be sure it isn’t caused by a treatable medical condition, such as hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

If there is no underlying medical basis, then what you are experiencing is likely a conditioned hunger.  In your case, since this has been going on so long, hunger may have become for you a conditioned response that you now expect in the night.

That means you’ve gotten into a habit over the years of eating in the night, and inadvertently conditioned yourself to expect food during sleep.  So your sleep is interrupted when you wake up hungry.

There are a couple of simple things you can do to counter this.  One is to have a pre-bed snack of a dense, high protein food.  Yogurt or peanut butter would be an example of a dense high protein food.  Lean meat, almonds, cottage cheese are others that might help you sleep through the night.

These dense foods tend to digest more slowly than other choices, and might help reduce your hunger pangs in the night.  Dairy products, in particular, might be an especially good choice because they are a natural source of tryptophan, which helps promote sleep.

Foods and drinks to avoid before bed would be greasy or spicy foods that can cause heartburn, sugary foods that could spike your blood sugar and cause a hunger rebound later, caffeine, and alcohol.

Second, you can help de-condition yourself by resisting the urge to get up and eat.  It takes some willpower, but you can do this in incremental steps, perhaps just allowing yourself one or two times for snacks for a couple of weeks, and then over time gradually taper this down to not eating at all in the night.

Hopefully this will be enough to help you sleep through the night and awaken more refreshed.  If you still have problems, consider using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) specifically designed for insomnia.  CBT is a very effective, drug-free, and permanent way to strengthen your sleep system.  You can find good CBT-based sleep training programs online if you want more information.

Explore posts in the same categories: Health, Insomnia, sleep

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