Student endures nocturnal eating disorder

What sort of reaction would you give to seeing an empty cake pan on an everyday basis? What if that same, desolate cake pan, occupied the night before, was discovered among your pillows and blankets upon waking?

One UW-Eau Claire student experienced this scenario.

A type of parasomnia, or unusual sleep habit, known as nocturnal eating, is plainly characterized as eating while sleeping.

Senior Amy Koecheler, a special education major, is clinically diagnosed with having both nocturnal eating and restless legs syndrome.

“I discovered I had restless legs and nocturnal eating, actually, when I first started walking,” Koecheler said. “Ever since I could walk I would literally, get up in the middle of the night, wake my mom up and ask her for something to eat.”

On Saturday, April 29, ABC News’s “Good Morning America” welcomed Koecheler for an interview on her disorder.

“Good Morning America” featured a behind-the-scenes look at the disorder through a documentary, with Koecheler included, called, “Sleep Runners” by specialist Dr. Carlos Schenck of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center.

With Koecheler’s permission, “Good Morning America” videotaped her activity during the night and for the first time, she witnessed what she had been doing since childhood.

“I looked like a zombie,” she said. Moving slowly, Koecheler maneuvered her way through the kitchen in search of foods such as chocolate chips, ice cream or peanut butter.

According to Schenck, nocturnal eaters “will eat high caloric foods, fats, carbohydrates, not aware of what they’re doing,” he said, “(but) if they are (aware), they … have no control and cannot stop themselves.”

Mark Stoiber, president of the Sleep Wellness Institute in West Allis, said sleep eating comes from a number of variables.

“It could be the result of an erratic sleep schedule coupled with stress,” he said. “It could also be genetic.”

Stoiber references the fact that Koecheler’s father is diagnosed with restless legs syndrome, and her mother sleep eats as well.

“During finals week I’ll get up and eat more, and I’ll actually just take an extra (dose of medication),” she said. “But mainly mine is caused by genetics.”

While nocturnal eating is more common in women than men, “there isn’t any particular (affected) age range,” Stoiber said. “It can happen to anyone.”

An inconsistent sleep schedule, typical of college students, can lead to the formation of a sleep disorder, Stoiber said.
“When you deprive yourself of sleep, you get a rebound effect, so you (experience) a longer period of slow-wave sleep,” he said.

It’s in the deep sleep phase that sleep disorders are most likely to occur, “which can be alleviated by eating,” Stoiber said.

Remedies for nocturnal eating can vary, but in Koecheler’s case a combination of Mirapex and Topomax decrease the likelihood of nighttime visits to the cupboard.

“Restless legs syndrome has promoted a sleep eating problem (for Koecheler),” Schenck said.

To treat restless legs and sleep eating, Schenck prescribed Mirapex, a medication also used to care for Parkinson’s disease patients, combined with Topomax, a headache medication.

But other options, aside from medications, do exist, Stoiber said.

“We would normally give them sleep hygiene tips as well as advice on stress management.

There are medications you could take in the end, but you always want to look to them last if possible.”

He suggests keeping a regular sleep schedule to avoid going into “sleep debt.”

“The best advice I have is to go to bed at a consistent time and wake up at a consistent time,” he said. “If you’re going to be out at all hours of the night, you can strategically take naps during the day. You want to take them during the afternoon, say 20 to 30 minute power naps, but avoid a one- or two- hour nap” Stoiber said, “because it will leave you feeling groggy.