How many sheep does one need to count before falling asleep or, in my case, how many spoons of peanut butter does one need to consume?
Anywhere from two percent to twenty-seven percent of Americans experience intense hunger in conjunction with insomnia. Sleep Eating Syndrome (SES), also referred to by researchers as “binge eating syndrome” and “night eating syndrome,” is linked to obesity. The condition is promulgated by inadequate neuroendocrine function and has been effectively treated by enhancing serotonin function.
Insomnia is a public health problem that plagues up to 70 million people in the United States. I would and did go to sleep easily, but twenty minutes later was awake and scavenging the kitchen for food. After researching this phenomena, I found it was due to an inability to turn off my sympathetic nervous system.
This situation was chronic since I've struggled with the condition for over one year. Popcorn bags, half-eaten protein bars and crackers are a few of the snacks I’ve woken to find scattered in bed with me. I’ve even woken with a yogurt-stained spoon in my hand, but none contributed more to the fifteen pounds I’d gained than the peanut butter—jars of it.
The taste, the texture, called to me in my sleep and lured me to the kitchen. I’d head toward the pantry and straight for the magic jar of Jiffy. Even when I avoided the nut butter aisle at the market, I couldn’t escape the signal it sent out like a beacon from the kitchen of every friend and family member with whom I’d spend the night.
Nocturnal eating hadn’t always been a part of my nighttime routine, but for over a year it controlled me. The unhealthy regimen began when my husband and I started growing apart emotionally, often going to bed at different hours to avoid each other.
Every evening I’d set my intention to not get out of bed, not even to relieve my bladder, but inevitably find myself pouring walnuts into the jar of creamy peanut butter and indulging my palette. I’d often get creative and add vanilla extract or cinnamon.
As the scales got heavier, I got more determined, but the more I fought the feeling of hunger, the more I ate. Many nights I was up and eating seven and eight times. The cycle was exasperating.
I refused prescription medications and diagnosed myself with chronic maintenance insomnia. Consults with doctors failed to lead to a solution. This was, in part, because of my desire to treat my disorder naturally with melatonin and Cannabidiol (CBD) spray, both of which lent relief for a few nights, but the effectiveness was short-lived.
I knew there had to be something in the peanut butter that I was craving. Upon researching the topic, I was surprised to find numerous support groups for people who were addicted to peanut butter—people who spread the creamy goodness onto everything from eggs to cookies— even people who substituted peanut butter for salsa on their corn chips.
With approximately two percent of the population having a sleep eating disorder, I was relieved to know I wasn’t alone. I tackled my disorder with a psychological approach. Perhaps, I was filling up with food to compensate for the lack of connection with my husband. So, I set a protocol for determining whether I should eat in the night. First, I’d say to myself, “I am awake and do not need to eat just because I am awake.” I’d then place my right hand on my belly and ask myself if I truly felt hungry.
Regardless whether the answer was yes or no, I took a deep breath, checked the time and made myself lie in bed for three minutes breathing and repeating, “I am full of love and creativity.”
The frequency of my waking remained constant, but the amount of times I would eat decreased to an average of two or three times a night. Moderate success, but I wanted full recovery.
I scoured medical sites looking for the missing link. There had to be something in the peanut butter that my body needed or I wouldn’t be so hooked on it. When I found out the amino acid L-tryptophan was a key nutrient, I began taking an L-tryptophan supplement and, not only did my cravings subside, but I felt more positive in general and started sleeping through the night for the first time in two years.
Seems the benefits to L-tryptophan are trifold. It increases serotonin and melatonin while decreasing cortisol, all of which are conducive to a restful sleep. Although, my experience is contradictory to a recent study of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, which does not support L-tryptophan supplementation as a treatment for insomnia, Stunkard contends that treatment for NES should include increasing serotonin levels. Other researchers report a decrease in nighttime eating after treated with serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
I am still in the recovery phase and about once a month indulge in a 2 a.m. popcorn feeding, but I am not elbow-deep in a peanut butter jar. A key component of my success involved accepting my perceived weakness for nighttime eating and allowing myself a healthy snack of celery dipped in humus should I still be hungry after adhering to my pre-set guidelines and meditation.
Due to a multi-faceted approach to my night-time eating disorder, I’ve reclaimed my unconscious hours and have dropped ten pounds I’d gained. The sleep-eat-sleep cycle taught me there is more than one remedy for much of what ails us, and when we tap into our intuition and implement mindful practices, we cure much more than the symptom. We heal our mental, spiritual and physical bodies from the inside, growing wiser, rather than rounder. Now that’s something to sleep on.