Experts: Sleep Eating Disorder Can Have Serious Health Consequences

PITTSBURGH (CBS) — It might sound like a bad dream, eating in your sleep with no memory of it the next day, but experts say it is a real condition with serious health consequences.

There was never a time Jason Carney could remember struggling with sleep.

“Always been a pretty good sleeper. Even as a boy, no issues really at all,” Carney said.

Until, a stressful stretch of his life seven years ago. He lived in Washington D.C., worked a demanding job and decided to finally quit smoking. Carney moved to Minnesota with his family for a change of pace. He started to diet and track calories on his phone.

“But I wasn’t losing any weight at all,” he said.

It didn’t take long for Carney to connect the dots.

“What really clued me in is, I would wake up the next morning and see food wrappers in the kitchen,” he said.

His FitBit found he’d be up as many as six or seven times, eating in his sleep.

“In the morning, I would have wrappers here, here and here. What I would do is just take them and group them. I’d look at my Fitbit and say, ‘OK, you were awake three times. You have three piles,’” he said.

It went on for years, as Carney tried to control it himself.

“Over five to seven years, I couldn’t,” he said.

He installed motion alarms that he would disarm in his sleep. Then, tried different sleep aids and vitamins. All while trying to eat very little when he was awake during the day.

Eventually, Carney couldn’t ignore the research he found online and had to admit he had a real problem.

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Dr. Ranji Varghese, who has seen the condition many times before, diagnosed Carney with a sleep-related eating disorder.

“He kind of knew his diagnosis before he even came into the sleep clinic. Most patients don’t have that knowledge,” Dr. Varghese said.

The same diagnosis for as many as 20 percent of his patients.

Dr. Varghese says a high percentage with the disorder are former smokers. The nicotine cravings still so strong, they act as a trigger, and often, patients with the disorder will be so out of it, they’ll eat things like raw bacon or butter to satisfy their hunger.

“They’re not awake. Their brain is still sleeping; they’re just engaging in these complex behaviors. They’ll eat these unusual foods, go back to bed and have no recall,” Dr. Varghese said.

In Carney’s case, he now takes half an anti-depressant pill each day.

“Like flipping a switch. It was unreal,” he said.

In two weeks, he dropped 15 pounds and went from waking up six or seven times a night to maybe once. If he is awake now, Carney says he knows it and can go back to sleep without eating. A simple concept that seemed impossible not long ago.

Dr. Varghese says medications aren’t always necessary to treat a sleep eating disorder. Sometimes having better sleep hygiene can help, like a rigid sleep schedule, less computer or cell phone use, and making changes to your bedroom. Bottom line, it’s best to check with a doctor before trying to treat yourself.

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