Sleep Isn’t For Wimps: Improving Sleep on Keto and Beyond
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Sleep Isn’t For Wimps: Improving Sleep on Keto and Beyond

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Sleep Isn’t For Wimps: Improving Sleep on Keto and Beyond

Posted 2 years ago

Brian Stanton

Brian Stanton


Tony O’Neill, PT, DPT, MSc, RDN

Tony O’Neill, PT, DPT, MSc, RDN

Author and Scientific Reviewer

Expert Approved

If you’re not sleeping well, it’s hard to be the best version of yourself. You’ll be hungrier, less focused, and less happy than you otherwise would be. You’ll also have more trouble burning fat.[*

This is true even if your diet, exercise, and stress management are 100% dialed in. You can be perfectly active on the perfect Keto diet and short sleep can still derail you. 

This article will help you prevent that from happening. It will also unpack Keto-related sleep disturbances so you can prevent those too.

First, though, let’s talk about why we need sleep.  

Why Sleep Matters

The old view is that sleep is a waste of time. According to this view, sleep cuts into your productivity and should be minimized. 

Consider the following quotes from famous people:

  • “Sleep is for wimps” - Margaret Thatcher
  • “Sleep, those little slices of death—how I loathe them” - Edgar Allen Poe
  • “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” - Warren Zevon

The essence behind these quotes still permeates the culture, especially among hard-charging business people and entrepreneurs. It’s like a competition for who can stagger into work on the least amount of sleep.

The irony is: sleep deprivation affects the cognitive capacities needed to be an effective person. When someone is sleep deprived, they’re less alert, less focused, and more impulsive.[*] In other words, they’re less effective. 

And it’s not just cognition. Short sleep can also make your diet less effective by impairing fat loss. 

In a 2010 study from the Annals of Internal Medicine, overweight individuals lost twice as much fat when they slept 8.5 hours per night for 14 days, compared to when they slept 5.5 hours per night for 14 days.[*] Same people, same diets, different sleep, different fat loss. 

Sleep-deprived people also have higher levels of the hunger hormone, ghrelin[*]. When your appetite is raging, it’s harder to stick to a diet.

If you need more reasons to care about your sleep, you needn’t look far. 

Getting adequate sleep…

  • Decreases the risk of high blood pressure, a key heart disease risk factor.[*]
  • Bolsters the immune system, including cancer and virus-fighting T cells.[*]
  • Helps flush your brain of amyloid-beta plaques, implicated in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease.[*]
  • Is linked to improved mood.[*]

And that’s just a partial list. For an in-depth tour of all things sleep, check out Dr. Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep. It’s well worth the price of admission. 

Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. The clinical diagnosis requires three nights per week of poor sleep for at least three months, but insomnia can also occur more acutely.[*

For example, a nontrivial amount of people report insomnia on the Keto diet. Insomnia is part of the galaxy of symptoms—headaches, low energy, cramps, constipation, etc.—known as Keto flu

This sleep disturbance often occurs in the early stages of Keto dieting. Why? Because the body is transitioning to low-carb living. Some explanation will help.  

When you restrict carbs, your blood glucose falls, and your brain doesn’t like that. Glucose, after all, is your brain’s default fuel. It may protest, leading to headaches, brain fog, and insomnia.[*]  

Fortunately, this situation is temporary. Blood sugar usually stabilizes within a few days as ketones (produced from burning fat) start to fuel the brain. 

Closely related is the move away from refined sugar. If you go from a high-sugar diet to a Keto diet, you may experience sugar withdrawal. Just like drugs, sugar can be addictive.[*]

Other ways that Keto may contribute to short term sleep issues include a decrease in REM sleep [*], as well as nocturnal hunger cravings and a need to get up to urinate during the night (“nocturia”) as you shift to a Keto-adapted state.

For continued cases of Keto insomnia, look to electrolytes, especially sodium. Sodium deficiency is common on Keto because:

  1. Whole foods don’t contain significant sodium
  2. Carb restriction causes increased sodium loss through urine.[*]

Inadequate sodium can cause a raft of Keto flu symptoms. Insomnia is one of them. 

How Keto May Improve Sleep

Some people do, in fact, get insomnia on Keto. But let’s look at the other side. Keto can improve sleep too. 

First of all, any intervention that fights obesity is good for sleep. When obese people lose weight, their sleep quality improves.[*

The Keto diet, as you’ve probably heard, is well-documented to promote weight loss in obese and diabetic populations. 

Losing weight may also reduce the risk of sleep apnea, a condition of obstructed breathing during slumber. Sleep apnea is linked to an increased risk of cardiac events and stroke, among other negative outcomes.[*

What about sleep quality on Keto? Researchers have looked at that too. 

In a 2008 study published in Nutritional Neuroscience, scientists fed 14 healthy men two different diets—a Keto diet and a higher carb diet—during two separate trials.[*] During the Keto trial, the men experienced more slow-wave sleep, the sleep stage in which tissue regeneration and repair, brain cleaning, and memory formation occur.[*

The Keto condition, however, was also associated with decreased rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. (REM is important for memory and emotional regulation). The implications of this finding aren’t clear. 

Lastly, Keto has been found to boost a calming neurotransmitter called GABA.[*] The rise in this relaxative chemical may explain why Keto enhances sleep in epileptic children.[*]  

Tips for Better Sleep

What steps can you take to improve your sleep? Here’s a quick list of practical tips: 

  • Get light early. Morning light shuts down the sleep hormone melatonin so it can rise later. Eating a high-protein breakfast with the morning sun may amplify this effect.[*]
  • Minimize light at night. Blue light (ahem, from screens for example) blocks melatonin secretion. 
  • Wind down. Try to avoid email and other stressful stimuli at night. A relaxation ritual like meditation, sauna, or a hot bath can go a long way to improving sleep quality.[*
  • Keep the room cold and dark. Around 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and pitch black is optimal. 
  • Get enough sodium. Being low on sodium can cause insomnia. Sodium also supports the production of antidiuretic hormone, which helps curb nightly pee breaks.[*] This tip is especially important if you’re on a low-carb diet. 
  • Exercise daily. Physical activity is linked to lower rates of insomnia.[*
  • Watch caffeine intake. If you’re struggling with insomnia, try cutting back on caffeine. In slow caffeine metabolizers, a morning dose of caffeine may continue to stimulate well into the PM hours.[*

One final tip is to track your sleep. This will help you stay accountable. 

You don’t need to blow $200 on some fancy ring that reports you’re in REM when you’re watching Game of Thrones. (True story). 

No, just set sleep goals and log your sleep, as you experience it, in the Carb Manager app.

As your sleep continues to improve, you might even find a new best version of yourself. I hope you do. 

Comments 6

  • Ohsogood!

    Ohsogood! a year ago

    Where in carb manager can you record your sleep?

    • Javelina Fairy

      Javelina Fairy 2 years ago

      Thank you. I’m about to lose my mind.

      • Maejbhey

        Maejbhey 2 years ago

        i cant log my sleep here please help thank you.

        • Ohsogood!

          Ohsogood! a year ago

          Did you figure it out how to log sleep? I don’t know either.

      • Ashira712

        Ashira712 2 years ago

        Thank you!

        • UpbeatCauliflower665634

          UpbeatCauliflower665634 2 years ago