Confessions of a Zombie Eater

I’ve always had problems with sleeping: insomnia, sleepwalking, muttering incoherent nonsense. But most distressing is my habit of zombie eating—buttering toast and tearing into pizza while I'm completely asleep.

by Josh Barrie
Jan 27 2015, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user katiecamera

Once, when I was about 14 years old, my mum found me pan-frying some sausages in a little butter. It was the middle of the night, and I was completely asleep.

To this day, I've no recollection of my early morning cookery, but I don't doubt it: the taste of Cumberland's finest lingered well into Saturday morning. Apparently, I'd even slathered the blighters in a little wholegrain mustard.

I've always had problems with sleeping: insomnia, sleepwalking, muttering incoherent nonsense to friends during sleepovers. I've even been told that on a few occasions I've tried to have sex (not during sleepovers). I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing until I'm awoken and startled into apology.

In my sleep, I've stumbled about in kitchens, clattering pans and delving into peanut butter jars in an effort to satisfy my apparent hunger.

Sleep disorders—including unconscious gastronomic sojourning—aren't all that different from one another.Afflicted people often find themselves snacking after hours, raiding the fridge in their pyjamas.

In my sleep, I've stumbled about in kitchens, clattering pans and delving into peanut butter jars in an effort to satisfy my apparent hunger. At one stage it was nearly always toast, buttered heavily. According to those who've lived with me, hidden pizza boxes and vanishing fish fingers have also featured. Naturally, plundered cake has come up on more than one occasion.

During the worst of it, a couple of years ago I woke to find myself in a 24-hour Tesco, dazed and confused by the yoghurts. In my left hand were a handful of pillaged grapes. This was a new level: I was asleep, wandering the aisles. It was alarming when I came to, to say the least.

Thankfully, I've shocked myself into remission these days—though managing to do so wasn't particularly easy.

Eating during the night is a more common affliction than you might imagine. The conditions can be categorised as either night eating syndrome (NES) or sleep-related eating disorder (SRED). The two must not be confused: NES is conscious and considered an abnormality in eating cycles, perhaps due to dieting or basic hunger; NRED (zombie eating) is not conscious and more closely linked to other parasomnias (sleep disorders).

I've met people who've eaten cat food, raw chicken. Cake is common.

Both disorders are troublesome, and both regularly misunderstood, but zombie eating is perhaps the most alarming. Medical experts estimate that around 5 percent of people are affected by NRED. As with other sleeping problems, it's often concurrent with alcohol and drug abuse.

"Both [disorders] can be very upsetting, but I think it's fair to say that NES is probably more likely down to restricted diets during the day; much closer to an eating disorder or, simply, hunger during the night," explains Dr. Paul Reading, president of the British Sleep Society and consultant neurologist at a hospital in Middlesborough. "NRED is a parasomnia and may be one element of a host of other issues."

Reading has encountered all sorts of oddities while treating sufferers of NRED. "It's in a half-asleep state and, like other sleeping problems, is goal-directed," he tells me. "People don't have a personality and are essentially unaware of their actions. With NRED, the vital third of the brain that controls memory and character (the front, to put it simply), is shut down. There might be cognitive ability, but no recollection of anything. It's auto-pilot eating."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, NRED often leads to weight gain. I was lucky—my binges were sporadic enough to deal with—but some feast up to six times a night.

"People can do very random things," Reading says. "They might eat something uncooked; gorge on things they wouldn't usually. It can be a big deal. I've met people who've eaten cat food, raw chicken. Cake is common."

Dr. Michael Howell works in the Department of Neurology at the University of Minnesota and is the program director of the Clinical Sleep Medicine Fellowship. He too has met many flummoxed individuals stricken by NRED.

"It is often dangerous," Howell says. "Many people ingest only a small amount of food but are distressed by the amnestic nature of it."

Howell notes that medication, especially sleeping pills like Ambien, can also induce NRED—a painful irony for people who are already suffering from sleep disturbances like NES. He believes the pills treat sleeping issues, but not the restlessness that can cause nighttime eating—people are struggling to calm down and switch off, as it were. Indeed, studies have linked Ambien to "unconscious food forays."

"When someone with restless wakeful nocturnal eating is given a sleeping pill, these meds unleash NRED," Howell explains. "This happens because these medications primarily function as amnestic agents (you don't remember) and as agents that suppress the prefrontal cortex (the judgement region of the brain) leading to uncontrollable binges."

Like Reading, Howell has encountered patients who shell nuts and even butter cigarettes in their sleep. Clearly, moderation is difficult to control when you've absolutely no clue about what you're putting in your mouth.

"One woman had a 25-kilogram weight gain over six months," Howell recalls. "High fat, high calorie foods are common."

One such sufferer of NES and NRED—let's call him Jack—actually prepares himself before he goes to sleep, tactically placing a chocolate bar or another snack next to his bed so that he's ready when the time comes.

"Around half the time, I'm fairly lucid when I do it," Jack tells me. "Sometimes I'm aware but unable to stop myself; sometimes it's subconscious. It feels like a compulsion."

Jack's unconscious vice is most often chocolate, but he knows that there's little stopping him from sleep-eating buttered cigarettes himself. "I don't necessarily think it's a massive problem, but I'd say the lack of control is a little disconcerting—you could be putting anything in your mouth."

But zombie eaters don't just worry about weight gain—they also fear that they're going crazy. I know it's come into my mind once or twice. Indeed, some feel depressed, frustrated, and ashamed by their off-kilter habits—despite the fact that psychiatrists have dismissed sleep disorders as symptoms of mental illness.

Even so, that's little comfort for those who find themselves chowing down after hours, unaware of what they're eating. I may have kicked my habit lately, but I can't help but worry that I'll be found in the kitchen once again, slippers covered in the food of dreams.