When starting a ketogenic diet, it's not uncommon to be suffering from a bit of “keto insomnia.” I've been there, and it wasn't fun at all.
After doing a bit of research, this is what I've been able to gather.
What causes insomnia on keto? A ketogenic diet mimics the metabolic effects of fasting. During fasting, the brain is tricked into thpinking that food has suddenly become scarce and ramps your body into overdrive to allow you to hunt and find food.
In this article, I will explain the mechanisms behind why keto might be keeping you up at night, a.k.a giving you keto insomnia. Not only will you learn why you may be having sleep troubles on keto, but how long it may last, what you can do in the meantime, and strategies to get back to sleeping like a baby.
Does Keto Affect Sleep?
A ketogenic diet affects people's sleep differently. One person may have improved sleep while another may have the complete opposite effect.
It's not a black or white answer, but the fact you're here means you may be part of the latter.Without going too far off the deep end, fasting (complete abstinence of food) and ketogenic diets are metabolically very similar. The only difference between the two is that during a ketogenic diet, you get to eat food, and during fasting… well, you don't eat.
You can look at the two as ‘starvation ketosis' vs. ‘dietary ketosis.' A ketogenic diet mimics the metabolic effects of fasting, except while consuming food.
During starvation, your brain is tricked into thinking that food has suddenly become scarce. When food is low, your body ramps into overdrive to practically give you the energy to go out and hunt for food so you won't starve… it's a survival mechanism.
It's no wonder why some individuals have trouble sleeping while fasting or during the early stages of a ketogenic diet.
When fasting or starting a ketogenic diet, your body essentially activates its sympathetic nervous system, which is what is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” part of your nervous system.
4 Additional Reasons You May Suffer From Keto Insomnia
While the keto-adaptation period may be an overarching factor to poor sleep when starting a ketogenic diet, there may also be other culprits.
The keto flu is precisely as it sounds. Without “actually” having the flu, you may experience the same signs or symptoms you would typically have with the common influenza flu.
- Dizziness Headache
- Runny nose
To help combat the keto flu, you may want to increase your intake of potassium-rich vegetables such as leafy greens and make sure to add salt to your foods liberally.
Alternatively, you can supplement electrolytes with one of my below recommendations:
Eating too little
One thing is sure: you need to be eating less than your body is burning to lose weight. However, many people who switch to a ketogenic diet feel so satiated, not hungry on keto, that they cut calories drastically.
While feeling full and satiated when attempting to lose weight is a great thing, it may result in you eating TOO LITTLE calories.
There is often a sweet spot in how fast you should lose weight when it comes to weight loss. It is usually recommended that individuals lose between 0.5% – 1.0% of total bodyweight per week.
Very overweight individuals may choose to lose between 1.0% – 2.0% of body weight per week, but the leaner you are, the more you should aim towards the lower end.
This means that an individual who weighs 200 pounds should aim for a weight loss of one to two pounds of weight loss per week. By losing weight in this manner, you put yourself in a better position to maintain muscle/lean mass and have a sustainable caloric deficit.
Eating too little can often lead to an increase in stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol during less than ideal times, such as during the nighttime.
If you find yourself waking abruptly in the middle of the night or a lot earlier than you would like to, your stress hormones may be a likely culprit.
Increase in stress
There are a lot of variables in life that can influence your body's stress response. While a certain amount of stress is good and causes our bodies to adapt, repeated stress can wreak havoc on your sleep.The thing is, your body can't tell if you're running away from a lion or staying up late trying to file your taxes before the deadline. Your body perceives stress very much the same way no matter what it is that's causing it.
Besides eating too little, as mentioned above, people tend to gravitate towards different “hacks” to lose weight as fast as possible. In particular, individuals like to make complete lifestyle changes when it comes to losing weight.
It's not unheard of for someone to go from sedentary and eating your (SAD) Standard American Diet to following a ketogenic diet, beginning a new exercise routine, and then throwing in something like intermittent fasting on top of it.
Instead of trying to do everything at once, try to slowly introduce one new variable and get your body used to it before introducing another.
Waking up to pee
A common reason for interrupted sleep, especially within the first week of starting a ketogenic diet, is waking up frequently to urinate.
On average, the human adult stores ~500 grams of carbohydrates in their muscle and liver. For every gram of carbohydrate your body stores, an additional ~3 grams of water is stored with it.
When you begin to restrict carbohydrates, as with the case on a ketogenic diet, your body will start to use up their carbohydrate (glycogen) stores and begin to expel the tag-a-long water as a result.
This is why you may find yourself peeing more when starting a ketogenic diet and also notice a significant drop on the scale.
While there is only so much you can do to correct this, it's during this period that many electrolytes are flushed from your body. I would highly suggest supplementing with an electrolyte drink during the first week or two of starting a ketogenic diet.
Is Insomnia A Sign of Ketosis?
I wouldn't quite put insomnia as a sign that you're in ketosis, but it might be. Besides, I wouldn't wear insomnia as a badge of honor of being in ketosis; there are many downsides to a lack of sleep.
One notable downside of not getting enough sleep is that it could derail your weight loss efforts through various mechanisms.
First, you're awake longer, which means more time to eat. Additionally, here are just a few other negatives when it comes to sleep and weight loss:
- Digestion is effected
- Poorer blood glucose control
- Cravings for junk food increase
- A larger proportion of weight loss from lean mass/muscle instead of fat.
How To Know You're In Ketosis Without Testing
While the only real way to know if you're in ketosis is via a blood ketone meter, there are other less costly methods such as urine test strips or tell-tale signs.
Purchase a blood ketone meter here Purchase keto urine test strips here
Let's forget insomnia as a sign if you're in ketosis or not. And, assuming you don't want to do a blood or urine test, here are a few other signs and symptoms you may be in ketosis.
- Appetite suppression Keto flu
- Keto breath
- Increased focus
Can Lack Of Sleep Kick You Out Of Ketosis?
Lack of sleep is bad news, and at the very worst, not sleeping at the extreme end can lead to death.
Fatal familial insomnia, while EXTREMELY rare, can be fatal.
But I digress.
Lack of sleep shouldn't impede your ability to get into ketosis, that is unless it causes you to eat carbohydrates.Ketosis is a metabolic state that is achieved through extreme carbohydrate restriction. This also means that you DON'T need to eat tons of fat to get into or maintain a state of ketosis.
But I digress once again.
While lack of sleep shouldn't kick you out of ketosis, and I'd be surprised if it did, stranger things have happened.
How Long Does Keto Insomnia Last?
Let me first say that once you've become keto-adapted or ‘fat-adapted,' chances are that your sleep will naturally improve. However, this adaptation period can take anywhere from 3 weeks to a couple of months.
So, in the meantime, we need to find ways to help cure that keto insomnia of yours.
How To Improve Sleep On Keto
Now that we have all of those pesky questions out of the way, how can we get your sleep to improve?
Here are a few tips to help improve your sleep until you become keto-adapted.
How to sleep better on keto:
Nighttime carbs and/or foods rich in L-Tryptophan
By saving your carbohydrates for your last meal of the day, you may naturally increase serotonin. If you'd instead not do that, you can also increase foods that are rich in L-tryptophan, such as:
L-tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, meaning it eventually becomes serotonin, as shown in the image below.
L-tryptophan -> 5-HTP -> Serotonin
Alternatively, it may be worth experimenting with a few more carbohydrates in your diet to see if it helps with sleep.
The few extra carbohydrates for a good night's rest will have a much bigger return on your weight loss effort.
Maintain a conducive sleep environment
What exactly is an environment that is conducive to sleep?
Avoid bright and blue light… or all light for that matter.
First, you can make sure that your room is dark (I'd suggest blackout curtains if that's an option). The hormone melatonin is released during the evening, but exposure to light during sleep AND even before sleep can suppress this hormone that helps us get to bed.1
Another helpful accessory is blue-blocking glasses, which filter out blue light typically radiated from LED lights and electronic devices (cell phones, computers, televisions). I like to dawn mine at least 1-2 hours before I plan to snooze.
There are also apps for your computer, such as f.lux, or Apple's nightshift on your phone that will automatically decrease the blue light that your device emits.
- Blue Blocking Glasses
Need something to fit over your glasses? I got you.
- Fitover Blue Blocking Glasses
Second, studies show that a room temperature of around 65°F (18.3°C) is optimal. While this may seem shocking at first, your body temperature naturally drops to prepare for sleep. If your body is too warm, you may have trouble falling and staying asleep.
Another helpful piece of advice is to take a warm/hot shower before bed.
Wait, you just said to cool down.
By taking a warm or hot shower, you're pulling the heat to the surface of your skin and away from your core, thus cooling it down.
The last puzzle piece for a conducive sleep environment is noise.
You don't want heavy metal blasting or people screaming while you're trying to sleep, or maybe you do? Earplugs can be a lifesaver if your environment is generally noisy around your bedtime.
On the other hand, some people may need noise, whether the television or ambient noise, so your mileage may vary (YMMV).
I love these ear plugs that mold to your ear
Maintain a regular sleep schedule
Our bodies work on what's called your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm regulates your sleep-wake cycles and repeats every ~24 hours, and rests primarily by exposure to light.
Going to bed the same hour and waking up at the same time +/- 1-hour will help get your body into a rhythm and allow it to expect to get to bed at a specific time.
If you've given these ideas a fair shot, then we can move to some more shotgun approaches, a.k.a. supplementation.
While not always possible, it may be best to get your workout in at least two to three hours before attempting to hit the pillow.
As mentioned earlier, you want to try and cool down before getting ready for bed. Working out will temporarily increase your body temperature and may affect sleep if close to bedtime.
Limit caffeine intake in the afternoon
Caffeine is a part of almost everyone's life all across the globe. However, that morning or early afternoon cup of goodness may still be affecting your sleep long after you've consumed it.The half-life of caffeine is around 6-hours. This means, after around 6-hours, half of that caffeine is still in your system. After 12-hours, there is still 25% of the caffeine in STILL your system.
If you have a problem falling or staying asleep, it's best to avoid caffeine entirely, or at least reserve it for the early part of the morning.
Alternatively, there's an ingredient called rutaecarpine that comes from the plant evodia rutaecarpa, which has been shown to help eliminate caffeine from the body at a faster rate.
- Purchase rutaecarpine here.
Give yourself enough time to sleep
You might be thinking, duh… but bear with me for a second. If you know that you need 8 hours of sleep to feel good the next day, you have to allow yourself MORE than 8 hours to get the required amount of sleep.
You have to consider how long it takes you to fall asleep, if you have frequent awakenings, etc.
While it seems like it doesn't need to be said, you may have to give yourself 9 hours in bed to get 8 hours of sleep.Always remember, you want quality over quantity sleep, but if you can get both then even better,
Keto Sleep Supplements To TryWhile nutritional and lifestyle changes should always be implemented first, supplements can be a great way to act as a buffer or go-between until those take hold.
Sleep is contingent upon being in a relaxed, parasympathetic dominant state. Therefore, we want to facilitate the production of inhibitory neurotransmitters like serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) while reducing excitatory neurotransmitters' activity.
While I wouldn't recommend supplementing with melatonin regularly, sometimes it can help during stressful periods or when traveling and switching to a new timezone.
However, melatonin can sometimes leave you groggy or cause you to wake up too early. Additionally, many melatonin products available over the counter are notoriously under or overdosed.
To learn more about melatonin, you can read about it in the article I wrote on melatonin and ketosis.
Also to note, melatonin supplements are notorious for being severely under OR overdosed, it's always best to go with a third-party tested supplement.
A lack of magnesium has been shown to impair sleep. A lack of magnesium can result in the excitatory neurotransmitters' abnormal activity, which is the opposite of what we want.
Supplementing magnesium has been shown to improve sleep quality, especially in the elderly, who tend to have relatively low magnesium intakes compared to younger people. 23
For sleep, in particular, I would recommend the glycinate version of magnesium.
The scent lavendar has been shown to promote relaxation, alleviate insomnia, and even improve sleep quality.4567
GABA helps regulate many of the sedative actions in your brain tissue and is crucial for relaxation. In other words, it is involved in a wide range of activities intimate with the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
L-Tryptophan or 5-HTP
L-Tryptophan and 5-HTP are precursors to serotonin, which can also convert to melatonin. Depending on who you ask, they would tell you to supplement with either L-Tryptophan or with 5-HTP.
My best suggestion is to try both (not at the same time) and see which one has a more pronounced effect. Both supplements are looking to accomplish the same goal, so using both simultaneously is unnecessary.
Vitamin B6 is considered a cofactor to both serotonin and GABA. You can think of B6 as a “helper” that must be present before other enzymes can work their magic.
In this case, enough B6 must be present for enough serotonin and GABA to be produced.
Zinc deficiency is quite common in developing countries, but as much as 12% of the population and 40% of the elderly are zinc deficient.8
Similar to Vitamin B6, Zinc is a cofactor in the production of GABA.
If you're familiar with ZMA supplements, they are a combination of zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B6, which makes sense given the above recommendations.
However, many (most) ZMA supplements have less than ideal forms of the vitamins and minerals mentioned above.
How Keto Can Improve Sleep
We've gone on and on about how a ketogenic diet may cause insomnia and impair sleep.
A ketogenic diet may also improve your sleep over time, so instead of with the good comes the bad… with the bad comes the good.
Improved blood sugar control
If you've ever woken up in the middle of the night hungry, hence the term midnight snack, then you may have experienced what is known as hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.
Your blood sugar may have risen from a carbohydrate-based meal earlier on and plummeted during your sleeping hours, causing you to wake up looking for a bite to eat.
While following a ketogenic diet, you will have fewer highs and lows, meaning less of a chance you'll wake up due to a dip in blood sugar.
GABA and Glutamate
From the supplement section above, you now know how vital GABA production is and its role in relaxation and, thus, sleep.
A ketogenic diet has been shown to boost GABA levels in not only mice but humans as well.9
I'm assuming you're utilizing a ketogenic diet for weight loss, and that's great. Why? Because obese individuals tend to sleep less, wake up more, and feel less rested than non-obese individuals.10
People who lose weight typically see an improvement in sleep and sleep-related ailments such as sleep apnea.11
The Keto, Insomnia, and Sleep Takeaway
There are a variety of reasons that a ketogenic diet may cause you to have impaired sleep. A ketogenic diet and fasting (complete abstinence from food) are similar metabolically.
In times of fasting or limited food availability, the brain is tricked into thinking that food is scarce, and you sleep less due to different excitatory neurotransmitters and stress hormones being released.
Essentially, your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) part of your body is activated, thus leading to low quality and quantity of sleep.
There are also other reasons that a ketogenic diet may disrupt sleep, such as eating too little, an electrolyte imbalance, and frequent awakening due to increased urination.
While many of these symptoms and adaptations will alleviate themselves over time, you can expedite the process by making sure you're eating an adequate amount of food (and the right foods), practicing proper sleep hygiene, and possibly including some supplements.