The Secret Life of Sleep Eaters

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"Patients who have a sleep behavior disorder such as sleep eating, when they see the tape of themselves, they truly are shocked, saying, 'My God. I didn't realize I was capable of doing this,'" said Schenk.

Ryan recently watched surveillance footage of herself arising from bed still asleep, walking to the kitchen counter and then picking up pieces of food. She then walked back to the bedroom, got onto the bed and started to eat.

"It's very slovenly," said Ryan as she watched the tape. "Look at that. Lying down. Chewing."

Ryan said seeing herself sleep eating was "scary. It's unbelievable. It's sickening."

Dangers of Sleep Eating

What's even more mind boggling is the menu Ryan has selected, which doesn't always include edible items.

"My nephews caught me in the middle of the night eating an SOS pad," she said, referring to the steel wool dish detergent pad. "It doesn't matter what you're eating."

As disturbing as the behavior is, it's typical of a parasomniac and can put them -- and their loved ones -- in danger.

"People have put napkins in a toaster and started fires," Schenk said. "They've cut their fingers chopping food. We're talking about major risk of injury during the night from the sleep eating and the associated sleep walking."

For Ryan, the hazards have included waking up covered in blood, only to find her front tooth missing, and falling down a flight of stairs, during which she wrenched her knee to the point that she needed reconstructive surgery for her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

"We've tried restraints, against medical advice," said Ryan, who lives with her husband Kenny. "They don't work. I end up hurting myself."

Beyond the trauma she's suffered, Ryan's sleep eating has caused her to struggle with her weight and face potentially life-threatening issues such as hypertension and high cholesterol.

Her struggle to get her sleep eating under control has led her to a sleep specialist, who has prescribed a combination of drugs, including anti-seizure medications. So far, they have only been occasionally successful in reducing her episodes of sleep eating.

"I'm going to do what it takes to get better," Ryan said. "I really don't know what to expect. I just know I'm going to live every day the best that I can."

While many questions about the connection between sleep and eating remain unanswered, Schenk said it's clear that sleep eating has absolutely nothing to do with a person's conscious control of their diet.

"It's not willpower. It's not a psychological problem," Schenk said. "It's a major physiological force coming from within your brain and body to eat at night so inappropriately."

Meanwhile, Ryan said she is speaking about her problem to get out the word that overweight sleep eaters are not just coming up with a convenient excuse for the extra pounds.

Eliminating the Shame of Sleep Eating

"People perceive it as a willpower problem. It's not," Ryan said. There are a lot of people out there who suffer from this. Putting it out there takes the shame away."

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