Web Producer: Brad Maglinger
When you think of a sleep walker, you think of someone who walks around confused in the middle of the night. Now imagine someone getting up, cooking mashed potatoes and pouring maple syrup on them, and then denying it ever happened in the morning.
That person is still sleepwalking, but when the dominant behavior is eating, the disorder has its own name and its own set of problems that come with it.
Cathy Stone used to wake up to a mystery. "I would usually find at least the milk all drank up and whatever fruit I had was missing."
Slices of cheese would just disappear. There would be cracker wrappers laying around. "I thought at first somebody was trying to break into my apartment, was coming in my apartment and eating my food," says Stone. "Well of course, that wasn't the case."
Turns out, the food bandit was Cathy. A sleep study revealed she has nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder. Cathy was awake enough to get out of bed and make her way into the kitchen, but she wasn't fully conscious.
Sleep specialist Dr. Mark Goetting explains, "So a person is only partly responsive to their environment, only partly aware in the crudest way, but are able to navigate and perform some complicated activities. So it is a state truly between sleep and wakefulness."
Many sleep eaters will eat stranger combinations than Cathy did. Some will pour ketchup into milk or put sugar on hot dogs. Some will even take soap and slice it up like cheese and eat it. Needless to say this disorder can be dangerous.
"One of my patients who is 19-years-old drank bleach while he was sleeping and that woke him up immediately," says Dr. Goetting.
Not only did Cathy eat, but she smoked too. Cathy quit smoking and she quit filling her prescription of Ambien. Dr. Goetting figured out that her sleep eating was a side effect of the drug she'd been taking for insomnia.
Ironically, since she's been off the sleeping pills, she's been getting more sleep at night and waking up to a kitchen that looks exactly how she left it.
The makers of Ambien say they are aware of sleepwalking as a rare occurrence for patients taking the drug. They say the prevalence of nocturnal eating however is about the same for them as it is for the general population.
Sleep eating can also be caused by conditions that interrupt sleep: sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome. Patients are usually treated with a combination of antidepressants and anti-seizure medications.
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