Sleep, diet, and exercise. These are the pillars of good health. But sleep may be the most critical pillar. A person can survive weeks without food, and years without exercise, but only days without sleep. In fact, just one night of sleep deprivation has been shown to significantly impair mental performance the following day. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably wondering how the keto diet affects sleep. Does it help? Give you insomnia? What’s the deal?
There isn’t a quick answer. Depending on the situation, going keto may improve or impair sleep. Fortunately, there are ways to lean towards the sleep-enhancement side of the equation.
More on that later. First, let’s explore what might cause sleep issues on keto.
Causes of Short Term Sleep Problems on Keto
When you go keto, your entire metabolism shifts. Instead of burning sugar (carbohydrates) for energy, you start eating keto-friendly foods to your optimal macros to ensure you’re burning fat.
This shift takes time, and it’s not always a smooth process. During this transition period, many people experience the “keto flu” – a catch-all term for side effects like fatigue and general low energy levels, irritability, headaches, and keto insomnia associated with switching to a keto diet.
These symptoms can last for days, weeks, or not manifest at all. But the keto flu isn’t actually a condition- it’s a label for other problems, some of which can be remedied quickly.
Here are three of those problems, each of which can impact sleep.
Neurochemically, your brain regards sugar as a drug. If you’ve ever dropped a caffeine habit, you know the drill. Going cold turkey isn’t easy, and it can certainly affect a good night’s sleep.
But it’s not just sugary sodas, cookies, and such. Even starchy carbs like rice and potatoes are forms of sugar that trigger these addiction pathways. So as your body adapts to a low-carb diet, normal brain functions – including sleep – may suffer.
The good news is the situation is temporary. Just stay keto, and the carb addiction will dissipate.
Sodium, potassium, and magnesium are minerals called electrolytes. They conduct electrical impulses throughout your nervous system, including your brain. Because electrolytes regulate normal brain functions, deficiencies in these minerals can cause sleep issues.
Where does keto come in? Well, when you restrict carbs on a keto diet, the hormone insulin stays lower. Low insulin is great for burning fat, but not so great for retaining sodium and potassium because the keto diet is a diuretic; it tells your kidneys to pee out more electrolytes, and consequently, sleep problems can ensue. Low sodium, for instance, may cause insomnia by increasing levels of the stress hormone, norepinephrine. The keto diet also restricts some foods rich in potassium and magnesium, which increases the likelihood of electrolyte deficiency.
Supplementing with electrolytes is an easy solution. Learn more here.
Waking Up to Pee
You just learned how keto makes you excrete more electrolytes. As we also suggested, the same holds true for water.
This water comes from the breakdown of glycogen, your body’s storage form of glucose. Basically, your body likes to burn these sugar stores before accessing body fat.
Unfortunately, this process releases a deluge of fluid that’s promptly delivered to your bladder for urinary disposal. Obviously, it’s not ideal for sleeping through the night.
The clinical term for having to pee more than once per night is nocturia, and it’s linked to depression and increased mortality risk. But as with carb withdrawal, keto-induced nocturia should be short lived.
How Keto Can Improve Sleep
Now for the other side of the coin: Potential sleep improvements from going keto.
Eating a high-carb diet means riding the blood-sugar roller coaster. As your blood sugar swings up and down, your energy and hunger swing along with it.
This is not optimal for sleep. If you’ve ever woken up hungry in the middle of the night, it was probably due to low blood sugar. The medical term for this is hypoglycemia.
Being in ketosis, however, gets you off the blood-sugar coaster…and onto the smooth and steady fat train. On the fat train, your blood sugar stays more stable, which means less midnight hunger.
But the connection between sleep and blood sugar runs deeper. Lack of sleep, in fact, impairs the ability of insulin – your blood-sugar regulation hormone – to dispose of high blood glucose. In other words, sleep restriction can shift your metabolism towards type 2 diabetes.
Practically, this means that sleep and ketosis are joined at the hip. If you’re not sleeping well, you won’t burn fat as well. But it also suggests that a keto diet – which keeps blood sugar low – may have a protective effect against the metabolic derangement of sleep deprivation.
Increased Deep Sleep
In a 2008 study, researchers found that a keto diet increased deep sleep more than a carb-containing diet in 14 non-obese men. During deep sleep, tissues heal, new memories form, and cerebrospinal fluid floods the brain to clear out proteins (like amyloid beta) that have been linked to Alzheimer’s.
But there’s a caveat: In that same study, the keto diet reduced REM sleep – the sleep stage best known for dreaming and memory consolidation – compared to the control diet.
GABA and Glutamate
Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps relax the mind. In one randomized controlled trial, GABA supplementation helped insomnia patients fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
The keto diet, in case you were wondering, has been shown to boost GABA levels in both mice and humans.
Then there’s glutamate – the excitatory neurotransmitter directly opposed to GABA. High glutamate levels, in fact, appear to drive brain injury and seizures. Why is that relevant? The keto diet, likely by boosting GABA and/or reducing glutamate toxicity, has been shown to improve sleep quality in children with epilepsy. So, it’s possible that anyone on a keto diet may experience similar benefit.
Compared to the general population, obese people sleep less, wake up more, and feel less rested. What’s more, obesity increases the risk of sleep apnea, a dangerous condition of nightime breathing obstruction.
When obese people lose weight, sleep typically improves. This is where keto may help. Across numerous studies, the ketogenic diet has been shown to promote weight loss in obese and diabetic populations.
Quick Tips for Good Sleep On Keto
Based on what you just learned, here are some rapid-fire tips for successful sleep on a keto diet:
- When starting a ketogenic diet, allow two to four weeks to adapt to keto and break your carb addiction. (To confirm you’re in ketosis, measure your ketones).
- At night, minimize blue light from phones, tablets, TVs, and computers to promote optimal levels of melatonin, your sleep hormone.
- Increase salt intake to prevent low sodium levels and optimize your antidiuretic hormone (ADH). (ADH helps you sleep through the night without having to pee).
- Consider potassium and magnesium supplements to correct electrolyte imbalances. Magnesium in particular helps counteract stress hormones, like cortisol, so commonly dysregulated in keto beginners.
- Consider GABA or melatonin supplements as temporary sleep aides.
The Final Word
Does keto improve sleep? The jury is still out. One recent study, for example, found that three weeks of keto dieting had no effect (versus a high-carb diet) on subjective sleep quality.
How keto affects your sleep will depend on your unique situation. If you constantly wake up hungry and are not on a ketogenic high-fat diet or are just starting one, in time keto could help by stabilizing your blood sugar. And if you want to lose weight for better sleep, keto could help with that too.