Shortly after Amy Koechler learned how to walk, she started doing something very unusual.
After falling asleep, Koechler would get up and toddle to the kitchen almost every night, find a snack, and eat it -- without ever waking up. While everyone has heard of sleep walking, Amy suffered from a related condition that's almost a secret. It's called SRED, Sleep Related Eating Disorder, also known as sleep-eating.
More than a million Americans suffer from this strange affliction, and most of them are women. Why they do it remains a medical mystery. However, doctors are pretty certain that genetics, rather than hunger, play a role. In Koechler's case, she inherited sleep-eating from her mother Shirley.
Koechler, now 24, recounted what it was like to grow up sleep-eating almost every night.
While fast asleep, "I would get up in the middle of the night and I would grab Girl Scout cookies," she said. "I would get my mom and I would pretend to have a tea party. And she became really frustrated with me because I would constantly wake her up."
Mom Shirley Koechler remembers how "Amy would come upstairs and she would flop her feet like a duck. We knew she would be sleep-walking. And then she'd have these eyes -- and you knew she wasn't awake . And sometimes she would look at you and scream: 'I'm hungry!'"
Raiding the Fridge
Koechler sleep-ate her way into adulthood. Her nightly trips to the kitchen became more frequent.
"It was not once a night, it was seven, eight, nine times a night," she recalled. There were times where I would get up and it would be probably a half hour after I'd fallen asleep."
But somehow, even though Koechler ate in her sleep for two decades, she didn't gain extra weight. For Anna Ryan, the consequences of her sleep-eating have been much more devastating. Ryan said that she gained 60 pounds in the year and a half that she has been eating in her sleep.
At first, she didn't even know that she was doing it.
Every morning, "I would wake up and it felt like I hadn't gone to bed," she said.
She had no idea why she was waking up exhausted or why she was unable to keep her eyes open during the day. When her doctor recommended that Ryan participate in a sleep study, she thought it was unnecessary. But the results of the study surprised her. It turns out Ryan was up most nights and she was eating in her sleep.
'I Wonder Why I Don't Choke'
Like most sleep-eaters, Ryan had no recollection of her nightly trips to the kitchen. But she wanted to see it for herself. She invited "Primetime" to set up night-vision cameras in her home to record her nocturnal journeys.
To her amazement, the cameras captured five different trips to the kitchen in a two-night period. The footage revealed Ryan, with a vacant stare, wandering into the kitchen and ransacking the cabinets. Ryan was eating, then filling her arms with snacks and taking them back to her bed.
Ryan's doctor, Scott Eveloff, said her nighttime gorging demonstrated an almost textbook case of sleep-eating.
"If you'll notice on the video, Anna does pass by the fruit, passes by several other more nutritious foods and then not only takes the non-nutritious food but, unfortunately, takes a lot of it and eats an almost a slovenly manner," Eveloff said. "That is classic sleep eating behavior."
Watching the video of herself sleep-eating for the first time, she was shocked by the images.
"I wonder why I don't choke. Wow! I didn't realize I was in bed eating and then laying down and eating," she said. "It's scarier than I thought, actually."
According to Dr. Carlos Schenck, author of "Sleep: the Mysteries, the Problems and the Solutions," that sort of shock is common with patients often wondering how they could be asleep and eating at the same time. When they see video of themselves, he said they tell him "it's disgusting, it's gross, it's terrible!"
Not a Matter of Willpower
But Schenck always reminds his patients that it's not a character flaw or a matter of willpower. According to Schenck, sleep-eating is a medical issue, a major "physiological force, coming from deep within your brain and body to eat so inappropriately."
Researchers have discovered that the brain of a sleep-eater behaves differently than an average brain. During normal sleep, the part of the brain which controls movement remains asleep. But in a sleep-eater, that part of the brain "wakes up" -- and this allows for all sorts of physical activity. But the part of the brain which controls reason and judgment remains asleep.
According to Schenck, it is in this zombie-like state that sleep-eaters function.
"They get up and they see their environment," he said. "They know where the kitchen is. But they have no judgment, no inhibition."
It is this lack of judgment which makes for odd menus. Some of Schenck's patients have eaten cat food sandwiches, soap, Elmer's glue, chunks of frozen pizza, and even eggshells. Anna Ryan admitted that she has eaten medicine in her sleep, so now her husband locks the medicine cabinet every night.
Doctors are still trying to understand the exact cause of sleep-eating, but they know what often cures it. In most cases, it's medication -- a variety of different meds can help a patient curb their nighttime noshing.
Amy Koechler decided that after 20 years of sleep-eating she needed to get help. Schenck put her on the same kind of drugs that prevent seizures. They don't work for everyone, but they did help Koechler. She still sleep-eats once in a while, but she is no longer a habitual visitor at the all-night diner in her own kitchen cabinets.
Now she can get a good night's rest -- if she keeps taking the medicine.
"It's something that I am not going to be cured from," she said. But the occasional unconscious night-time snack is something she can "learn to live with."
Unfortunately Anna Ryan didn't respond as quickly to medication. Dr. Eveloff said that in his experience sleep eaters generally fall into two categories.
"There's the group of people who respond beautifully to the first attempt at low-dose medication," Eveloff said. "And then there's a group of people who remain difficult to treat despite every single medication, and medication combination being thrown at them."
Finally, after months of trial and error with a variety of medications, there is hope for Anna Ryan. She and Eveloff have found a combination of drugs that allows her to sleep through the night, and the pounds are coming off. And her kitchen? Quiet, calm, and undisturbed, all night long.
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