According to this paper, Circadian Rhythm Profiles in Women with Night Eating Syndrome, “Patients with night eating syndrome (NES) – first described in 1955 – demonstrate a phase delay in the circadian pattern of food intake, manifested by evening hyperphagia, nocturnal awakenings with food intake, and morning anorexia.”
I would start by asking this question: is low serotonin a root cause and is tryptophan a possible solution? I’ll share why below and where to start in order to find a solution.
Before I do that let me explain the terminology used in the above quote: Circadian means it happens every 24 hours, hyperphagia is obsessive food-seeking behavior, nocturnal awakenings are waking in the night and anorexia refers to restricted eating in the morning.
There is no research supporting the use of serotonin support with either tryptophan or 5-HTP for night eating syndrome but I would still start here for the following reasons:
- this behavior happens in the evening and at night and it’s well recognized that serotonin levels are lower later in the day and at night
- carbohydrate cravings and addictions occur with low serotonin and cravings are most intense later in the day (typically afternoon and evening)
- obsessive behaviors are common with low serotonin
- insomnia or night-time waking is a common symptom with low serotonin
- doing a trial with either of these amino acids will very quickly confirm if low serotonin is a contributing factor or will rule it out
I would also have my client look at other low serotonin symptoms which would help confirm that low serotonin may be a factor for them: worry-type of anxiety, ruminations, PMS, irritability, rage or anger, TMJ, panic attacks, perfectionism, depression, low self-esteem and so on. You can see all the low serotonin symptoms here.
We typically start with a trial of tryptophan simply because so many of my clients do so well with it. The other reason is that 5-HTP can raise cortisol and cause a wired-tired feeling. That being said, some folks do better on one vs the other so if tryptophan doesn’t help then we trial 5-HTP. You can see the products I use with my clients here on the supplements blog.
I would love to see tryptophan or 5-HTP being more extensively – because it works so effectively and quickly, and is addressing the root cause – but also because there is research that does support the serotonin connection to night eating syndrome:
- Night eating syndome has been associated with “depression, emotional eating, sleep problems, and food addiction as well as with being overweight or with having obesity (especially as people age)” – all low serotonin symptoms.
- Night eating patients are “responsive to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor treatment” (antidepressant/SSRI treatment)
- Bright light therapy may help with night eating because of it’s “serotonergic antidepressant mechanisms of action.” Night eating syndrome also shares features with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and it’s not uncommon to experience both. The winter blues or SAD is common with low serotonin. I write more about SAD and bright light here.
I’d also consider low blood sugar as a contributing factor. We would need to rule out the use of the sleep medication Ambien/Zolpidem which has been shown to cause amnesia and sleep related eating disorders which resolves when the medication is stopped.
As always, it’s not only the low serotonin we need to address. Tryptophan or 5-HTP offer quick relief but we must always do a full functional workup looking at diet, nutritional deficiencies, digestion, all hormones, toxins and infections (and so on) so we can address all possible root causes – and why serotonin is low in the first place.
I share some possible reasons for low serotonin on this blog on imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is another common sign of low serotonin.
Have you been diagnosed with night eating syndrome or do you feel you possibly fit the profile? Does it happen every night and what foods are you drawn to? Which low serotonin symptoms can you relate to and has tryptophan or 5-HTP helped? What about light therapy? And was an antidepressant prescribed?
Feel free to post your questions and feedback in the comments below.