Ask the Doctor

I have had an issue with “night eating syndrome” for approximately 25 years where I wake up one or more (usually more) times per night with the craving to eat carbohydrate-rich foods. I have been able to not eat for stretches of time, but I still wake up regularly during the night. There appears to be evidence that the circadian rhythm of people with this condition is off for eating, as well as hormone secretion related to appetite and a feeling of fullness. Is there any guidance on the possible use of bright light therapy for this problem? Are you aware of studies in the works? Thank you!

You are indeed correct that the circadian (24h) rhythms of patients with the Night Eating Syndrome (NES) are altered. Research from the University of Pennsylvania has found that patients with NES display a delayed circadian pattern of food intake but have normally timed sleep-wake cycles. Patients with NES also show marked circadian rhythm changes in glucose and in certain hormones including melatonin, cortisol, leptin, ghrelin, and insulin. Interestingly, two case reports on single patients have used bright light to successfully treat NES, and an unpublished pilot trial has also shown bright light can treat night eating behavior. So your surmise that light therapy wouldn’t work for NES is probably wrong. However, systematic investigation of this important topic is critically needed.

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