My Low Carb Insomnia Ultimate Guide
You can’t sleep. You are tossing and turning and now you are investigating and searching. All because you simply can’t sleep. Are you suffering from a bad case of low carb insomnia?
By now, you’ve figured out that at the very least, there is some sort of association between your inability to sleep and the new and exciting low carb diet you are doing.
Your mind is anxious, you are zombie each and every day, you experience road rage, but you are losing weight. At least, in your sleep deprived state of being and short-tempered approach to trivial matters, you are more svelte.
My Low Carb Insomnia Guide To Better Sleep – (Here To The Rescue.. kind of, you’ll see).
This is a part of my “how to survive” series. Low carb insomnia is a beast and can destroy our efforts to lead a productive, anti-fragile life.
So let’s get to it and find out if this article is even worth it for you…
Also, please note, low carb anxiety and low carb insomnia are considered one in the same in this guide.
If You Sleep Fine On Low Carb, This Article Isn’t For You
Many people sleep better and experience less anxiety on a low carb diet. In other words, many people never experience low carb insomnia. If you are one of them, this isn’t an article that pertains to you. This is the case for many people. But not for others.
Others, keep reading…
My Story – How It All Began
I struggled for nearly a decade with low carb insomnia. It became a tragic cycle.
I’d start my low carb diet, MAYBE night one I’d sleep. But following that, I was up most of the night, typically getting an hour or two of sleep right as the sun was rising. Having a kid, a heavy workload, and family events made the stress of not sleeping exponential.
Additionally, I was constantly in a bad mood on low carb. My brain literally never shut off anxious thoughts. They went on during the day and through the night. I worried over trivial matters, ruminating over unlikely possibilities.
But all the while, I’d research and inevitably, no matter how many ways I changed up my search strings, I found myself re-indoctrinated to the “it’s not the low carbs, it’s you” spiel.
So I’d fight on.
I was always in an emotional grind with friends, family, my wife, the neighbor’s barking dog, the fact that the grocery store checker asked me for my club card. You name it, I was aggravated by it.
It was an addictive, nasty cycle. Once I’d been “back on the carbs” for a long enough period of time and felt good again, I’d start getting the “low carb itch” again.
- I want to be thin
- I want to be laser focused
- I want to be part of the herd
- But…I want sleep
That final bullet point often crushed my soul. I’d start losing weight, but I’d start severely needing sleep.
I had to choose, or at least that’s how I felt.
But surely, there had to be some sort of real solution (there is, mostly, as you will read below).
This guide is a low carb reality check, but it does aim to please. Hopefully, of course, you can live happily ever after eating chicken breast draped in olive oil with a side of spinach every night and have six-pack abs.
But maybe not..
My Low Carb Insomnia guide aims to explore the common reasons cited for low carb insomnia and what’s really at the bottom of low carb insomnia (you aren’t expecting this). Furthermore, what can you do about it?
Let’s get moving. Surely, you are awake and ready to do some myth-busting.
I Don’t Hate Low Carb Diets, They Work
(That’s not the point of my low carb insomnia guide)
First things first, this is about low carb insomnia, not low carb pros or cons. Low carb diets most certainly help people lose weight, that’s part of the reason you’re probably struggling with just eating a jelly sandwich and falling to sleep. You want a jelly sandwich, but you want abs, weight loss, and more focus and better blood sugar numbers.
I get it.
This isn’t a low carb hater article. Unfortunately, people are so indoctrinated to the low carb diet anymore, they can’t see the forest for the trees.
People tend to get really jumpy when you question low carb in any capacity.
I’m not hating, I’m exploring, I’m trying to solve an issue that plagues thousands of people and is confirmed to exist by science.
But many low carbers are indoctrinated (I’m sorry, but it is true)
Not all, but many low carb diet followers are indoctrinated into a cult. Internet forums, as well as keto pyramid schemes, have caused people to miss the big picture. Some become rabid dogs trained to turn on any outliers who have the nerve to question low carb or ketogenic diets.
They believe that the only way to achieve weight loss and improved health is by eating low carb.
This has made finding useful commentary and exchanges over common low carb side effects nearly impossible unless you are willing to accept being belittled and ousted. I’ve seen people, desperate people, ask questions about low carb insomnia in keto Facebook groups, only to be thrashed and eventually banned from the group.
You either kowtow the “potatoes are dangerous” line or you the one who speaks dangerous blasphemy. There is no in-between anymore.
And that leads us to all the crap you will find when researching…
Your Investigation Into Low Carb Insomnia
Dismal and Useless
I doubt you found my low carb insomnia guide during night one of your battle to shut your eyes and count a few sheep. Instead, it is more likely that you’ve been searching for days, possibly even weeks, for a solution to what ails you in the quiet of the night.
You’ve searched “Low Carb Insomnia” and “Ketogenic insomnia” and “please help me, I haven’t slept in weeks after starting a low carb diet.”
Let’s go over the responses you’ve read point by point.
1) It’s “withdrawal.”
Truth Meter: It Is Possible
The “its withdrawal” response is the most common response you will read online. Some call it “keto flu” and one of the symptoms is ketogenic insomnia.
Whether you posed the question, or you are following other people’s message board threads, this response is over 15 years old if not longer. Here’s Atkin.com pitching sugar withdrawal in (not sure the date). Here they go again in 2011.
The problem here is, Atkins makes money on people who seek to lower carbs. They don’t want you bailing on day 2 because you can’t sleep, that doesn’t make much business since.
But, Might it be valid? Sure, there is science supporting that ceasing the ingestion of sugar can lead to withdrawal.
A 2017 study showed that sugar cessation can lead to compromised dopamine levels, which leads to anxiety, and well, to insomnia.
Let’s look closer at an excerpt from the study’s conclusion.
The reviewed evidence supports the theory that, in some circumstances, intermittent access to sugar can lead to behavior and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of a substance of abuse.
What this review demonstrates is that rats with intermittent access to food and a sugar solution can show both a constellation of behaviors and parallel brain changes that are characteristic of rats that voluntarily self-administer addictive drugs. In the aggregate, this is evidence that sugar can be addictive.
So yes, science is confirming the idea that sugar is addictive, but in rats, not people. This certainly implies a potential state of withdrawal is possible and maybe even likely for some people. Lots of people have felt withdrawal symptoms when they’ve quit carbs, that’s good enough for me and better than any low carb mice.
My point being and for what its worth, I buy into sugar withdrawal.
But the dogma of “low carb withdrawal” remains reckless nevertheless.
When someone has been suffering from insomnia for weeks and the herd convinces them this is, inaccurately, the result of extended “sugar withdrawal,” the person tends to “fight on.”
If you’ve suffered insomnia for two weeks and you believe that it is 100% the result of sugar or carb cessation, you are more likely to keep going because you don’t want to blow your investment. You see a new, improved you just over the horizon, however, a big potato could ruin it all and you’d be in the dismal position of starting over.
So, under potential false hope, you keep going.
The trouble is, often, this proposed “withdrawal” never truly has an end.
How long is your “withdrawal” going to last? If you notice, the timeline seems to get more and more outrageous the longer you don’t sleep.
“You just started, so give it three days.”
“Well, I know it’s been a difficult two weeks for you, but sometimes it can take a month to really get past the induction phase.”
“Oh, you haven’t made it a year? You will see, it all gets better.”
Weeks, months, and years without sleep are somehow justified? Really think about this for a moment. What’s your limit on living a life hating everything you see and not sleeping?
There is no doubt that a few days of insomnia could be warranted if you quit eating ho-hos, but eventually, the rabble is just wrong and you are stuck in a cycle of constant wakefulness and anxiety.
2) You don’t need THAT much sleep.
Truth Meter: It Is Possible
Once the “withdrawal” concept is dumped into your brain’s trash bin of logical justifications for getting an hour and a half worth of sleep per night, you will be led into the “well, don’t worry, you don’t need that much sleep on Ketones.”
Let’s begin with the hard scientific facts:
The National Sleep Foundation, which is composed of 18 world-leading scientists, reviewed 300+ sleep studies and published them in 2015. The “voice for sleep,” as they call themselves, extracted hours and hours of data and concluded that adults need 7 to 10 hours of sleep each day.
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Now, let’s take a break from science for just a moment. I realize that not all studies apply to all people, we all possess different genes and DNA and internal chemistry.
That’s why I often rely on the science of common sense.
If you get four hours of sleep in a night, how do you feel?
If you feel spectacular, then hey, roll with it.
Ketosis and Less Sleep
From a perspective of personal experience, I will admit that when I’m low carb and sleepless, my brain does tend to work a bit more efficiently than it would on high-carb and sleepless. I believe this is where people get the “you need less sleep” rhetoric.
The thing is, if you are getting three or four hours of sleep per night and still functioning, but feel terrible, is that truly healthy and is it a the mark of a high-quality life?
Again, common sense usually prevails in cases like this.
3) You get Tryptophan from Turkey so you should sleep fine…
Truth Meter: No, No, and more No
Now we are getting somewhere, but not the place you think we are getting.
You really need to pay attention right now, because I will be revisiting this point later on.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that’s found in a number of foods, including Turkey and other proteins. It supports improved sleep function. Tryptophan is converted into 5-HTP, which makes Serotonin, which makes us happy and sleep better.
So when you are sleeping, you are happy. I don’t think I needed to connect those dots for you. Serotonin makes us happier by improving our moods. It also helps us relax and sleep.
But here’s the thing…
The Turkey / Tryptophan / Sleep rhetoric just isn’t true. As pervasive as it is written online, it is essentially a myth. In fact, the production of serotonin is blocked by protein because they are both battling the same channels to the brain and protein always wins the channel.
Just so you understand fully, people who eat a meal with protein have their serotonin blocked.
I’m going to stop now, because this is a bigger beast and I have a lot more on this matter below. The takeway here is that the “eat more turkey” on your low carb diet won’t help, and in fact, all the protein you are eating due to the diet’s restrictions is sandbagging your serotonin production.
4) You aren’t eating enough nutrient dense foods.
Truth Meter: It Is Possible
5) More exercise!
Truth Meter: It Is Possible
If you are in the beginning stages of a low-carb diet, exercise may be a dangerous option. Could exercise in later stages of ketosis potentially cure low carb insomnia?
There are a few studies that show moderate exercise can help people fall asleep faster. The same studies often show poorer results for those who exercise with heavy intensity. But none of the studies take into account the carbs ingested, the carbs depleted, or anything to do with carbs.
Trying to exercise on a low-carb diet when it is safe to do so makes sense. But there isn’t supporting science in the matter. You’re just throwing crap at a wall and it may work.
6) Stop looking at your smartphone in bed
Truth Meter: It Is Possible
There are tons of studies that show looking at your iPhone (like you are right now) can hinder your ability to fall asleep.
Let me be personal here and not dive into any science.
I think we all know that looking at a laptop, iPad, or smartphone, at bedtime, is no good for sleep. But when you are having low carb insomnia, just laying there, eyes closed, anxious thoughts afloat is truly no better. And in the end, who isn’t going to opt to distract themselves from the bitter hell of low carb insomnia?
It is worth trying, but don’t get your hopes up.
The Real Reason For Low Carb Insomnia (Heads Are About To Explode)
I’ve arrived. You’ve arrived.
So what is most likely causing low carb insomnia in some people?
Serotonin and Insomnia
Remember how I said we’d come back to the Turkey / Tryptophan / Sleep conjecture? Well, I’m a man of my word, we are back.
At the most basic and primal level, you need serotonin production in order to sleep and be happy and not fly off the handle over ridiculous, meaningless stuff.
A depleted serotonin level may cause depression, which causes insomnia.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that calms us. It mellows us. It greases the wheels of sleep.
As mentioned prior, protein blocks the distribution of serotonin through the blood-brain barrier.
How Do We Get Serotonin?
I’m sure the math in your head is solving a problem (and creating a new problem but don’t worry, I am going to get to that).
Carbs, particularly starchy carbs like potatoes, rice, corn tortillas, produce serotonin. And often, this is why starchy carbs can send us into a lullaby.
What’s worse, protein blocks serotonin. So any of the carbs you do eat on your low carb diet, their serotonin efforts are likely thwarted.
This is why the “Serotonin Power Diet,” a book written by Judith Wurtman and Nina J. Frusztajer M.D., as well as the book “Potatoes Not Prozac: Solutions For Sugar Sensitivity” written by Kathleen DesMaisons Ph. D., are such big hits on Amazon. Because each in their own special way, they encourage starchy carbs as a way to produce serotonin to improve mood.
Cortisol, The Complicit Enemy…
Yes, it gets worse. Cortisol, the fight or flight human hormone, is increased on a low carb diet.
So now, there you lay, with elevated cortisol and depleted serotonin. You have the energy and rage to go hunt a rabbit, but no confidence to actually try.
The Solution To Low Carb Insomnia (There may be light..errr…darkness, at the end of the bedsheets)
I can’t sleep on a traditional ketogenic diet. But does that mean I can’t sleep on a ketogenic diet?
Ah, things are about to get a little more interesting.
Low Carb Diet Dogma Restricts Unreasonably
I do better with anything on restrictions. For most of us, being told “just stop eating bread and drinking soda, you will lose weight” is easy enough. At one time in my life, that worked like a charm. I never have soda anymore. Would one soda here and there have hurt? Probably not, but the mental edge that lent consistency to my lifestyle was the fuel behind my weight loss.
That’s probably why the low-carb diet appeals to you.
But now, that might be working against you.
Low carb enthusiasts despise potatoes and white rice and corn tortillas. Potatoes and white rice and corn tortillas make serotonin.
You can see the dilemma here.
But that’s just it, there is no dilemma whatsoever.
We know that starchy carbs, particularly when ingested without the presence of carbs, create serotonin. We know that serotonin helps us sleep.
You know what we don’t know?
If eating a potato, alone (the potato without a protein item, not you alone, you can eat it with a friend if you like), will help us produce serotonin and potentially help put us to sleep, why not try it?
Try An Isolated Starch
You don’t know that eating some white rice, or a potato, just before bed, will “throw you out of ketosis.” You don’t know, even if that rice or potato does toss you out of ketosis, that you won’t still lose weight.
So wouldn’t it make sense to try it?
If it does help you sleep and you are still losing weight, what’s the issue? Do you really believe that one potato eaten each night is going to make you obese? Did you know that the healthiest people in the world eat starchy carbs?
What About Fruit?
Ah, the road well, well, well traveled by me.
“I’d still be paleo if I ate apples and some honey and a pear before bed.”
Labels are silly.
And its even worse, fructose, the chemical version of sugar commonly found in fruits, also tends to block serotonin when it is eaten in excess.
My Fruit Experiences
Many people will tell you to “have a little honey before bed” to cure low carb insomnia. I’ve done it. It sort of works, but the blood sugar dump I experience in the middle of the night leads to nightmares and I tend to wake up lightheaded and with a nasty case of brain fog.
But that’s just me.
Fruit is worth trying, but don’t get your hopes up.
What Else Is Making Low Carb Insomnia Worse?
Above, I put forth the idea that what you might not be doing (eating isolated starches) is causing your low carb insomnia.
But what about trying to limit or cut out the things you are doing?
Here’s a list of things that are typically associated with low carb dogma that can work against your sleep and mood goals.
Coffee on low carb is completely out of hand. If you are already feeling anxious or suffering from low carb insomnia, dumping three cups of coffee on top of your stressed brain is going to make it all worse. And, more importantly, as I wrote about in my how to quit caffeine guide, caffeine’s half-life is deceptively long. For the most part, even drinking strong coffee in the morning can leave good amounts in your body when you lay down for bed.
Nothing wrong with coffee, but if you can’t sleep, don’t think that the amount you drink “before noon” is not weighing into the low carb insomnia battle.
Ketosis is only delayed by drinking red wine or vodka. If you didn’t already know that, just Google, there are millions of low-carbers that will happily explain this to you.
That science is all fine and well with me, but it doesn’t help the case for relieving low carb insomnia. Alcohol, even a little wine before bed, is proven to chaotically disrupt that night’s sleep.
The Bigger Picture Issue
When we feel anxious or sleep deprived, we tend to want to drink more coffee during the day to survive our tasks and more wine at night to “relax us.
With limited serotonin, inflated cortisol, slathered in coffee and Pinot Noir, we lay awake scrolling our iPhone for help.
The Final Word On Curing Low Carb Insomnia
We’ve learned what potentially causes low carb insomnia, as well as what forces work against resolving it. Low carb insomnia is often caused by a lack of isolated starches in the diet. But low-carb enthusiasts irresponsibly demonize starches, causing many people to feel they “must choose between sleep/anxiety and a healthy weight.”
But that’s not entirely true. Many people remain in ketosis after eating a potato at night and sleep much better. Many people who don’t remain in ketosis but eat a potato at night and sleep better still lose weight.
Complex thinking is often lost in dogmatic bubbles.
Author: Jim Satney
PrepForThat’s Editor and lead writer for political, survival, and weather categories.