The Ketogenic Diet and Insomnia

Sleep duration and quality have been shown to affect a multitude of factors related to health and well-being, including weight loss and mood. If you're following a keto diet for weight loss, increased energy, improved cognition or any one of the diet's other purported benefits, the trouble you are experiencing sleeping can seem counterintuitive. The good news is, keto insomnia may be short-lived.

Insomnia caused by the keto diet is short lived.
Credit: a_namenko/iStock/GettyImages

Keto Diet Basics

In order to figure out why your new diet might be causing sleepless nights, it's helpful to understand what's going on your body right now. If you have lowered your carbs enough — 20 to 50 grams is standard, according to an article in StatPearls in March 2019 — and increased your fat intake sufficiently, your body has likely entered a metabolic state called ketosis.

Now, it no longer has glucose — the byproduct of carbohydrate metabolism — as its preferred source of energy, so it must find its second-best option, which is fat. The breakdown of fatty acids produces substances called ketone bodies, which can be used as a source of energy.

This is a big shift, physiologically, that your body has to adapt to. If you can imagine doing something for years in the same way and suddenly having to do it differently, well, that's what your body is going through right now.

Any big dietary change can disrupt your body's homeostasis, or state of balance, and lead to both mental and physical side effects. The keto diet's side effects are well known and often casually referred to as the "keto flu." Most people will experience one or more of these symptoms in the first few days to a week after starting the diet:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Reduced exercise tolerance
  • Weakness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Skin rash

So, you're really tired, yet you can't sleep. And you have some other symptoms to boot. All in all, it's not going to be a great week.

Read more: 5 Simple Steps to Get the Best Night of Sleep Ever

Keto and Sleep Issues

Think back to the last time you had the actual flu — how was your sleep then? Likely fitful. Well, this is the same concept. There are a whole lot of things going on in your body right now that are stressing out your system. Just feeling generally unwell can cause you to toss and turn all night.

However, there are other, more specific, explanations for your interrupted sleep:

You're hungry: The keto diet claims to surpass other diets because of fat's effect on satiety. More fat = more satisfied. After following the diet for a period of time, most people report feeling less hungry; but the beginning of the diet can be the opposite, with some people reporting that they feel more hungry than they did before. Going to sleep hungry is sure to keep you from sleeping deeply.

You're experiencing withdrawal: According to researchers of a study published in Plos One in February 2015, refined carbohydrates have characteristics similar to drugs of abuse and can be addictive. Foods like chips, cookies, cake and buttered popcorn were among the top foods reported by the study participants to be problematic, causing food cravings and associated with addictive-like eating. If you previously ate a lot of these foods and suddenly cut them out, your body may be having a withdrawal-like reaction, symptoms of which often include restlessness and difficulty sleeping.

Fat is keeping you up — or not: You may be experiencing stomach upset as your body adjusts to all that fat. Rumbling tummy, bloating, gas and diarrhea are common effects, and those can certainly keep you from getting a good night's sleep. This may be a factor in the beginning, at least, until your body has adapted.

There isn't much research on how macronutrients affect sleep. A handful of small studies have revealed mixed results. For example, a study published in August 2012 in Lipids in Health and Disease concluded that a high-fat intake correlated with short sleep duration, but only in the 20 male participants, not in the 38 female participants. Another small study published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research in May 2016 found that a high fat intake improved sleep in 36 young adults.

Other Reasons for Sleeplessness

People who start the keto diet often make other dietary changes besides the decrease in carbs and increase in fat. For example, butter coffee — coffee blended with grass-fed butter or ghee to make a carb-free, latte-like drink — is a popular addition among keto dieters. Even people who have never liked coffee before like butter coffee. If you have hopped on this trend and are drinking more coffee than usual, this may be the reason for your sleeplessness.

Did you start taking any of the multitude of supplements aimed at keto dieters? For example, collagen, medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) oil, or beta-hydroxy ketones are all popular additions to the keto diet. There are many claims about what these supplements do, and many boast increased energy as one of the benefits. But they aren't FDA-tested for efficacy or safety, so any evidence regarding whether or not they actually work is mostly anecdotal. But, just maybe, the MCT oil does give you a sudden boost of energy — are you taking it before bed? Bingo.

Supplements may also contain other ingredients that can interrupt your sleep. Cocoa powder, which contains caffeine, is a common additive. Green tea, yerba mate, guarana and kola nut are other caffeinated ingredients often found in supplements, according to the USDA.

Read more: 10 Things to Do to Get Better Sleep

Solutions for Keto Insomnia

Insomnia can wreak havoc on your productivity, decreasing your energy, focus and drive, and it can affect your immune function. Combined with the other side effects of the keto diet, it can make you miserable.

The good news is that if you've just started keto, your symptoms, including sleeplessness, are likely to subside as your body adapts to the dietary change. Many people report that the first few days are the worst, but they start to feel better after that. So you might just wait it out and see.

If you've been on the diet for a while and you're experiencing insomnia, it's likely not your diet. How's your stress level? Is it possible that a big project at work started just as you began the diet? Stress is a primary cause of insomnia, so it's worth looking into.

No matter the cause, finding a solution — fast — is high-priority. It never hurts to check in with your doctor for advice. In the meantime, the National Institutes of Health offers some tips for reducing insomnia:

  • Find a pre-bedtime routine that promotes sleep — take a warm bath, listen to relaxing music or read a book. Avoid electronics, including phone, tablet, computer and TV, before bed.
  • Schedule exercise at least five hours before bedtime and avoid eating big meals right before turning in.
  • Make sure your bedroom is conducive to good sleep — dark, quiet and cool. Keep pets out of your bedroom at night to minimize distractions.
  • Set a sleep schedule, going to bed and getting up at the same time every day — even on weekends. If possible, avoid working night shifts or rotating schedules.
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