Readers Digest
Magazine subscription Podcast
HomeHealthHealth Conditions

What is sleep-related eating disorder (SRED)?

What is sleep-related eating disorder (SRED)?

Ever heard of sleep-related eating disorder? Here is all there is to know about the condition as well as one woman’s battle with this disorder

Food as a sleep saboteur?

Absolutely. And we aren’t talking about nights when you try the new sushi place down the street and end up with dancing shrimp doing the rumba through your gut.

What is SRED?

We are talking about a saboteur called sleep-related eating disorder (SRED). Also called nocturnal binge-eating disorder, it is a condition in which eating during the middle of the night is likely to keep you from getting the deep restorative sleep you need—and it may force you to gain serious amounts of weight.

"Sleep-related eating disorder is a condition in which eating at night keeps you from getting the deep restorative sleep you need"

Researchers report the disorder affects more than four per cent of young adults and triple that number among those who have been diagnosed with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. It may go on undetected for a whopping 10 years before the weight gain, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, major depression, and disrupted sleep reveal its presence to a physician’s discerning eye.

Out of control

Why is food a sleep saboteur? - Young Man Eating Cookie In Kitchen Near RefrigeratorCredit: AndreyPopov

Sometimes the only clue you have to SRED is the trail of breadcrumbs you leave behind. You wake up on the groggy side, feeling stuffed and a little anorexic, walk to the kitchen, and there you find the remnants of a midnight snack—usually high-fat, high-calorie foods. There are probably no fruits or vegetables, but there may well be such oddities as buttered cigarettes, dog food, salt sandwiches, even eggshells, and—dangerously—kitchen cleaners.

The out-of-control eating occurs almost nightly, sometimes more than once a night. It begins after a period of sleep. The next morning, the sleep eater may be able to recall vague images of what she did. Or not.

The science and triggers

Scientists are just beginning to unravel the complicated brain circuitry that connects eating and sleeping. But they have been able to figure out that SRED is sometimes associated with sleep disorders such as restless legs, narcolepsy, or obstructive sleep apnoea and can be triggered by medications such as zolpidem, triazolam, and lithium.

"Scientists are just beginning to unravel the complicated brain circuitry that connects eating and sleeping"

It can also apparently be triggered by major relationship stress, by dieting, and by the cessation of cigarette smoking, alcohol, and recreational drugs.

Eating disorders sabotage sleep

Why is food a sleep saboteur? - African American woman looks into refrigerator at night while eating a sandwichCredit: diego_cervo

Both anorexia nervosa, a disorder in which (mostly) women eat between 400 and 800 calories a day, and bulimia nervosa, a disorder in which (mostly) women eat between 10,000 and 30,000 calories a day, significantly interfere with sleep.

"Those with anorexia frequently use the time they would normally sleep to exercise, and those with bulimia frequently stay up eating"

Because those with anorexia frequently use the time they would normally sleep to exercise, and those with bulimia frequently stay up all night eating, neither of the groups functions on the recommended amount of sleep.

One woman’s story: Sleepless in Biloxi

When 36-year-old Molly Johnson’s husband began waking her up on a regular basis to ask about bills she hadn’t paid or chores she hadn’t done during the day, she couldn’t believe it.

“I’m a strong person by nature,” says Molly, an elementary school substitute teacher, “but I couldn’t handle the stress. I became riddled with anxiety. And I began to dread the night because I didn’t know if it was going to be a good one or not.”

Her husband’s behaviour not only disrupted her sleep when he woke her, but her fear that he might wake her also kept her from sleeping as well. She is not sure exactly when it was that she started waking up in the middle of the night to eat, but eventually, she would wake twice a night and head for the kitchen to eat chips, cookies, candy, and just about anything that wasn’t nailed down. She wasn’t asleep, but she wasn’t awake, either. “I knew what I was doing,” she says, “but in a sleepy, dreamlike way.”

Molly tried therapy for four years, and finally, at her psychiatrist’s urging, she went on an antidepressant. The drug made her less anxious, she says, but neither the therapy nor the antidepressant helped with her sleep eating.

Then one day, she decided that she was going to spend the night in her daughter’s bedroom, thinking that her husband wouldn’t wake her if her daughter was present. It worked. Her husband’s intrusive behaviour came to a halt—and so did her sleep-eating.

Today she sleeps well. “Sleeping in separate bedrooms has saved me,” she says. “I traded intimacy and sex for solace and peace.

Banner credit: Choreograph

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter


This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...
Stories by email|Subscription
Readers Digest

Launched in 1922, Reader's Digest has built 100 years of trust with a loyal audience and has become the largest circulating magazine in the world

Readers Digest
Reader’s Digest is a member of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (which regulates the UK’s magazine and newspaper industry). We abide by the Editors’ Code of Practice and are committed to upholding the highest standards of journalism. If you think that we have not met those standards, please contact 0203 289 0940. If we are unable to resolve your complaint, or if you would like more information about IPSO or the Editors’ Code, contact IPSO on 0300 123 2220 or visit