I wake up at 2 a.m. and walk to the kitchen. I need to eat something. Carbs. Sugar. I'm starving. I have no control until I can get something in my stomach. I devour a bowl of cereal. Then another. Then a few giant spoonfuls of peanut butter. I go back to bed.
4 a.m. I'm up again. More peanut butter. A swig of milk. Back to bed.
7 a.m. and normal people are eating breakfast. I feel sick. Full. I make a giant cup of coffee, add some sweetener, and drag myself to school feeling depressed and nauseous.
For so many years this was my reality.
It started in Ireland when I was 16. I was living there for a year and became extremely restrictive with my food. The only time I allowed myself "heavier foods" like bread or cereal was in the morning.
Eventually, I was so hungry that mornings became 4 a.m. Then mornings became 3 a.m. And my one bowl of cereal would be two, or three, and maybe a few cookies if they were lying around.
I was underweight and my body needed substance to last through the day, but this was the one time I could allow it. I could burn it off. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right?
Eventually I came back to Canada and made my health a priority. I intentionally worked on gaining weight, muscle, and a normal relationship with food back. But I could not shake this habit.
At 3 a.m. my brother would be returning from a night out with friends and I'd be in the kitchen with a giant bowl of cereal and a jar of peanut butter by my side. I needed it. I felt helpless. And it got worse. Sometimes I ate so much I threw up. Years later in university I ate my roommates food and tried to secretly replace it. I remember buying a new jar of peanut butter and trying to make it look exactly like the one I had demolished. Not a proud a moment.
If I got up once a night, it was a good night. But often I'd find myself at 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 4 a.m., alone by the light of the fridge looking for some calorie dense food to eat.
I had no control over it. I dreamed of living in a hotel room with no access to food so I could rid myself of this habit. I dreamed of locks on the cupboards. I wanted a way out.
Through research online I eventually found out I had a form of Night Eating Syndrome (NES). I wasn't the only one, several people, many of whom were women who had eating disorders in the past, struggled with the same thing.
The most disheartening thing was that I could find no stories about anyone who had overcome this. Everyone seemed helpless, stuck, lost. Some locked up their cupboards only to search for the key and unlock them anyways. Some took Zoloft, an anti-depressent, and had mild improvement but side affects from the drug itself. Many older people who struggled with NES were overweight and frustrated.
I tried the strongest sleeping pills on the market. Sometimes doubling the doctor's recommendations. I still woke up and ate in a groggy state. I did acupuncture, saw nutritionists, tried every herbal remedy on the market and still couldn't shake it. I became increasingly interested in health and nutrition, and increasingly frustrated that this was stopping me from ever feeling good. It fuelled my anxiety, depression, and feelings of worthlessness. I was constantly tired and often felt nauseous. I felt alone with a dirty secret.
When I was happy and in a relationship it got better. Fuelled by love, support, and a sense of calm I rarely ate during the night. I was so happy to be able to eat breakfast like a normal person.
Over time the night eating came back. But it wasn't as bad. Usually I'd have a bowl of oatmeal and some nuts. A normal sized breakfast at 3 a.m. Still it drove me crazy and I asked my boyfriend at the time to make me stay in bed if he heard me getting up. Some nights that worked, other nights I practically snarled at him and ran to the kitchen for food.
Eventually I decided it was time to talk to a nutritionist again. I set up a phone appointment with Joy and told her about my NES and how much I craved balance.
Her advice was extremely helpful: reduce stress, keep a gratitude journal, cultivate healthy relationships, remove anything from your life that brings you down or makes you feel bad about yourself, do other things than watch TV at night, read inspiring literature, exercise every day and start lifting weights.
She also asked that I include protein at every meal which was a huge step for me. I constantly craved sugar to keep my mood and energy levels up and always feared protein made me feel too full.
I took baby steps. It got better. I still struggled some nights.
For years, it got better, and I was amazed with how many nights I did sleep.
Up until a year ago, it was a constant on and off. It wasn't until I realized I still didn't feel as good as I should, and that my health was still suffering (I was often sick and struggling from digestive issues), that I attempted to cut out gluten from my diet.
As soon as I had fully eliminated gluten I was able to sleep through the night. I stopped being sick all of the time. My eyes got brighter. My anxiety decreased. My depression started to fade. I didn't feel bloated all of the time.
Earlier this year I worked with another nutritionist, Sarah Maughan, to restore my digestive tract, and felt even better afterwards.
I think my allergy to gluten was the final straw. I don't believe I could have kicked NES by getting rid of gluten alone. I needed to deal with my eating disorder mentally, to address some of the emotional components hiding behind my binge eating, to learn to love my body, to decrease stress in my life, to learn how to eat properly in the day and to be patient with it.
Every once and a while I get up and have a snack. But it's a far cry from the helplessness I once felt. It's important to look for improvement, not perfection.
Recently I was waking up at 11 p.m. on point and getting up to eat nuts. After speaking seeking professional help I found out my adrenals were burnt out and that this is a common symptom and craving. Since adjusting my diet and keeping my blood sugar level stable, I'm sleeping like an angel.
Eating disorders come in all shapes and forms. I think it's crucial to take out the shame, allow yourself to be vulnerable, and seek help. Sometimes your body is screaming at you to find balance in your life or in your diet and you need to stop and listen.
If you are suffering from NES or any other kind of eating disorder, there is hope. I promise.
Be patient and ask for help.
Some useful tips from a Holistic Nutritionist :
Night Eating Syndrome, or NES is characterized by a lack of appetite in the morning, overeating at night and waking to eat throughout the night. Here are some steps you can try to help in your NES recovery:
1. Eat breakfast Many people with NES do not eat enough food during the day, especially in the morning because they are not hungry from a late-night binge. It is important to create structure and routine and that can often start with having a complete breakfast ie poached eggs with goat cheese and spinach, oatmeal with seeds, nuts and superfoods, a hearty smoothie with protein powder, greek yogurt and fresh fruit.
2. Have a snack before bed Consume protein rich foods, specifically in the amino acid tryptophan; this is used to make serotonin, which among other thing is makes us calm and promotes sleep. Tryptophan rich foods include; eggs, meat, chickpeas, peanuts and pumpkin seeds.
3. Create a bedtime ritual Turn off the tv, close Facebook, take a warm bath with epsom salts, meditate, read, journal. Whatever it is that relaxes you, do it! Creating a calm mind and calm environment around you will not only help with stress but will help with better quality sleep. some of my favourite bedtime ritual items are…
- Natural Calm, a magnesium drink powder you can take before bed to help relax
- Clinical Luxury by Graydon Lavender Chamomile Sandalwood AromaBlend, a beautifully calming and restorative blend of essential oils
4. Manage stress
Finding outlets to manage stress will be helpful. This may include yoga, meditate, walking, acupuncture or massage. Learning to deal with stress in a healthy way will only serve to benefit you and will help you along your recovery process.
5. Ask for help Perhaps the most difficult but also the most crucial step. It is important as part of the recovery process to seek help, specifically a trained professional as they will be able to help you through the steps you need to take and form a healthy relationship with food.
Please consult your medical practitioner for further help.
*This blog post is about my personal experience. Please seek help from a professional you are suffering from any type of eating disorder. If you'd like to discuss this personally feel free to email me at gilliankyoung(at)gmail.com