Many people consider the keto diet a popular option for weight loss. Keto dieters reduce the intake of simple carbohydrates such as sugar, white bread, and pasta, tailoring meals to include moderate protein and higher fat. This way, your body should tap into fat stores for energy and help you lose weight.
Eating plans also impact other aspects of your life. For example, some people experience a condition called “keto insomnia” on this program. Wait—how does trying to lose weight make getting a good night’s rest harder? Ugh! Let’s take a closer look at how keto affects sleep.
How does keto affect sleep?
- Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in the body and then used as fuel.
- When carbs are significantly reduced, as with keto, the body turns from relying on its preferred source of energy, carbohydrates, to relying on fat.
- As the body burns through its stored glucose in the form of glycogen, it then turns to fat.
- As the body breaks down fat, it produces ketones, and this is what will then be used in place of glucose.
The National Library of Medicine states that on average, the dietary macronutrients—like fat, protein, and carbohydrates—for a ketogenic diet “are divided into approximately 55–60 percent fat, 30–35 percent protein, and 5–10 percent carbohydrates.” Because carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of fuel and energy, Richards says, a lack of them in a keto diet means very little glucose circulates through the body.
“[It] helps the body produce L-tryptophan, the amino acid responsible for production of the relaxation hormone serotonin. As the body prepares for sleep, this hormone turns into melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep,” she adds.
Unfortunately, there are few other foods which contain natural melatonin. This means some people find it difficult to adjust their rest cycles without carbohydrates priming that all-important sleep-inducing process.
Can the keto diet cause insomnia?
While some studies note how a diet high in healthy fat helps you sleep, others indicate that an eating plan rich with complex carbohydrates actually promotes “significantly longer sleep duration” and “fewer wake episodes.” Complex carbohydrates include beans, high-fiber fruits and vegetables, and whole grain foods.
“Diet can impact the quality and quantity of sleep both positively and negatively,” Richards says. “In short, we need carbs to sleep better. We need all macronutrients for our bodies to operate at their most efficient level and when we significantly reduce one or more of these, many body functions are interrupted, including sleep.”
What is keto insomnia and how long does it last?
If you’re new to the keto diet and its focus on low carbs, you might experience some sleep disturbances. Richards says keto insomnia is usually an early and short-term side effect of the diet while the body adjusts to fewer carbohydrates. In fact, the condition is so common that you likely won’t be able to read about how a ketogenic program works without finding references to it. For some individuals, keto insomnia may only last a few days, while others could experience it for up to four weeks.
Another reason why keto affects sleep is because it can make dieters feel a little nibbly. Dr. Kristen Casey, a licensed clinical psychologist and insomnia specialist, says feeling hungry might make it challenging to fall asleep.
“When we’re hungry, it’s difficult to feel rested enough to fall asleep,” she says. However, complex carbohydrates, which are fiber-rich and encouraged in the keto diet, create a feeling of satiety or fullness because they take longer for your body to digest.
“Some people may be midnight snackers, too,” Casey adds. “They wake up in the middle of the night to eat a snack or a meal. This may cause more arousal (also known as wakefulness). It may be difficult for these individuals to fall back to sleep after eating in the middle of the night.”
While you might eat fewer carbs on the keto diet, the design of your plan could make all the difference in sleep quality. Meal ingredients and timing may help offset keto insomnia by promoting the essential qualities needed for better rest. For example, let’s say in your keto plan, you follow the 60/30/10 ratio of fat, protein, and carbs. You might feel fuller and avoid late-night ‘fridge trips by including non-starchy vegetable carbohydrates in your last meal before bedtime, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and mushrooms. Hopefully these and other veggies approved on your plan are just enough carbs to prompt sweet dreams.
What are the health risks of not sleeping well?
“The purpose of sleep is for restoration of our mental and physical states,” Casey says. “There are several health risks for those who experience chronic poor sleep, insomnia, or sleep deprivation.”
She notes that a major risk of chronic sleep deprivation is cardiovascular issues, which may include high blood pressure or an increased risk of heart attacks. Poor sleep also creates risks for:
- Difficulty achieving fat loss
- High blood pressure
- Immune system issues
- Low libido
- Type 2 diabetes
Even if keto insomnia seems temporary, Richards says if it doesn’t resolve itself within a few weeks, “this is an indication that your body is telling you keto isn’t right for you.”
Casey adds that if you continue to struggle with insomnia, it’s important to get assessed by a medical or mental health professional. “There are several treatment options, including cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, medication management, or a combination of medication and psychotherapy.”
Tips for sleeping better on the keto diet
We mentioned above that the keto diet has specific guidelines for macronutrients, so Richards suggests using those parameters to your advantage to improve your potential for sleep.
“Those having issues with keto insomnia may benefit from saving their carbs for later in the day,” she says. “Carbs for dinner gives you time to both use them and also allow the body to make the needed hormones for better sleep.” So if you follow the keto macronutrient guide of 5–10 percent carbs per meal, consider eliminating them from lunch to power-up the carbs in your last meal before turning in.
In addition to saving your carbs for later in the day, you can also incorporate sleep-inducing foods into your diet. Richards says there are three foods you can count on with significant amounts of melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep: Tart cherries, bananas, and oats.
“Bananas are unique in that they’re also rich in L-tryptophan and magnesium,” she says. “Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant which can help the body and mind wind down before going to sleep.” Other foods rich in magnesium include avocados, nuts, and tofu. Oats also contain essential prebiotics that promote enhanced gut health and digestion, which also helps you sleep more soundly.
The last word from Sleepopolis
Striking the right balance between dieting and maintaining proper nutrition can be difficult without due diligence. If you feel a keto diet contributes to your health goals, be mindful of how the initial phase may compromise your sleep pattern and work on these recommended solutions for better rest.
When not traveling, teaching yoga, or doing voiceover projects, Tracey is an editorial strategist and content developer for print, digital, and multimedia platforms. Based in the Midwest, she writes on various topics, from addiction science and sleep hygiene to better bonding with pets and interesting nonprofit and advocacy efforts. She also makes a rather snazzy blueberry pie.