Medical Condition May Cause Sleepless Snackers

If your normal night time routine has you wearing a path between your bed and your refrigerator, listen up! There may actually be a medical explanation for that endless need to munch after the sun goes down. It's called "night eating syndrome. "

Dr. Albert Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Timothy Walsh is an eating disorders expert

"I feel totally out of control," says Jim Fischer. He wakes up at least five times a night with a mysterious urge to snack. "I go straight to the kitchen to eat. It's almost like I'm sleepwalking. I thought it was just a bad habit".

"It's very, very difficult to control." Embarrassed by all her trips to the kitchen at night, she asked to remain anonymous. "You're feeling bad that you're even eating, but you can't stop." For the millions estimated to suffer from this problem, hope that it's not all in their head.

A breakthrough study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, shows there could actually be a medical reason for all those uncontrollable urges to snack at night.

Dr. Albert Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania says the symptoms can be very distressing. Researchers call it night eating syndrome. "The basic goal of our study is to define and characterize the disorder," says Dr. Stunkard.

Using a motion sensor, doctors are now tracking how many times people with this problem get up at night to eat. Through a series of tests, they've made an unexpected discovery.

Hormones that help you sleep and guard against over eating, normally rise when you go to bed.  In Night Eating Syndrome, Dr. Stunkard found those hormones don't rise at all. "Neither of them go up at night, leaving the patient vulnerable to disturbances in sleeping and eating."

The result? Getting up several times at night and munching like there's no tomorrow.

For Jim Fischer, who thought this was just an urge, going through the study has been an eye-opener. "I fit the profile almost to the tee." And ironically, doctors find night eaters reach mostly for carbohydrates, which contain compounds that help put them back to sleep. "The carbohydrate craving may be a method of self medication," says Dr. Stunkard.

While Night Eating Syndrome is not officially on the books, the study has won support from other leading experts like Dr. Timothy Walsh. "The finding that there are important biological parts to the development and the continuation of eating disorders would be a really important discovery."

A discovery that could ultimately mean a cure for countless "closet" snackers who raid the fridge, night after night.

The Night Eating Syndrome study is underway at the University of Pennsylvania. The final phase will involve the testing of an anti-depressant to see if it helps curb the urge for night time snacks. An interesting note-- while other eating disorders tend to affect mostly women, night eating syndrome affects just as many men as it does women. And while other eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia are psychologically driven, researchers say Night Eating Syndrome could be the first eating disorder to be medically-based.