Can Gluten Cause Sleep Problems?
Gluten consumption and celiac disease have wide-reaching effects throughout the body. From skin and digestive problems to mood and sleep issues, gluten can impact our health in many ways. This article explores the link between gluten consumption and sleep problems.
This article will cover:
- The relationship between gluten, insomnia, and sleep apnea
- Diseases and symptoms caused by gluten that disrupt sleep
- Gluten, nutritional deficiencies, and sleep
- How to improve sleep quality naturally
How common are sleep problems/insomnia?
An estimated 70 million Americans suffer from some form of sleep disorder, and according to the American Journal of Managed Care, approximately 30% to 40% of adults in the United States report symptoms of insomnia, the most common sleep disorder, at some point in a given year. While incidence varies by age and gender, one study found that insomnia was more common in females than males and those over age 35 as compared to under age 35.
Interestingly, research suggests that sleep problems are more common in the celiac population. One study evaluated individuals both with and without celiac disease by administering the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), a self-rated questionnaire which assesses sleep quality and disturbances over a 1-month time interval, and found that The PSQI score was higher in Celiacs at diagnosis and in a gluten-free diet than in their non-celiac counterparts.
Why sleep disorders are a problem for health
Lack of sleep can cause a number of adverse health effects, including the following:
- Anxiety and depression
- Reduced cognitive performance and the deterioration of judgment capacity
- Compromised immune function
- Hormonal alterations
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
Insomnia and Gluten
The most common sleep disorder is insomnia. Insomnia can make it hard to fall asleep or hard to stay asleep. It can also cause one to wake too early and not be able to get back to sleep.
While research has found insomnia to be more common in those with celiac disease, some research suggests that a gluten free diet may help improve symptoms of insomnia. One study found a significant improvement in children’s sleep scores after adopting a gluten free diet. A gluten free diet helped children fall asleep more easily and sleep for longer with less interruptions. These improvements were realized regardless of initial age, sex, and symptom status.
Gluten and Sleep Apnea
Another common sleep disorder is called sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. The three types of sleep apnea include the following:
- Obstructive sleep apnea: occurs when throat muscles relax during sleep (the most common type)
- Central sleep apnea: occurs when the brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing
- Complex sleep apnea syndrome: occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea
Research has evaluated the complex interplay between sleep dysfunction, nutrition, and digestive diseases. Several studies support the associations among sleep, immune function, inflammation, and gastrointestinal diseases. It is thought that sleep-related changes in gastrointestinal physiology that are present in diseases like celiac disease can create vulnerabilities to digestive issues and digestive system function. This can in turn influence breathing during sleep.
One study found that breathing problems during sleep in children were improved upon adoption of a gluten free diet. Another study had similar findings of improved symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea upon initiating a gluten free diet.
Other Gluten Related Symptoms that Can Disrupt Quality of Sleep
A recent retrospective cohort study showed that 62% of adults had extraintestinal manifestations (symptoms unrelated to digestion) of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease at the time they were diagnosed. While they may not typically be associated with sleep disorders, many of these symptoms can disrupt sleep quality. Some of these symptoms include the following:
- Muscle and nerve pain
- Joint pain
- Eczema/skin rashes
- Neurological symptoms, such as developmental delays, learning disorders, depression, migraines, and headaches.
Are Nutritional Deficiencies Caused By Gluten a Factor In Sleep Quality?
It is well established that nutritional deficiencies are common in those with celiac disease, even after a gluten free diet is implemented. Many of these nutritional deficiencies can also impact sleep quality. Some common nutritional deficiencies caused by gluten including the following:
- Vitamin D: one study found that those reporting short sleep had inadequate intake of vitamin D
- Magnesium: the same study found that those reporting short sleep had inadequate intake of magnesium
- Vitamin B12: another study found that those with higher serum vitamin B12 reported better sleep quality scores and a lower use of sleep medication.
Improving Sleep While Eating Gluten Free
The good news is that there are a number of natural and effective ways to improve sleep quality:
- Sunshine exposure: research has shown that sun exposure can have a major impact on melatonin rhythms and can result in improvements in mood, energy, and sleep quality.
- Stress management: there is no doubt that stress disrupts sleep, and managing stress can improve sleep quality. Try meditation, movement, and breathing techniques to manage stress. You might also consider supplementing with nutrients that support a stress response.
- Adequate hydration: Hydration is important for just about every system in the body, including sleep. Symptoms of dehydration, like headaches, dry mouth and nasal passages, and muscle cramps can cause discomfort that disrupts sleep.
- Exercise: Research has shown that moderate to vigorous exercise can increase sleep quality for adults by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and the amount of time they lie awake in bed during the night. Plus, exercise can help relieve feelings of fatigue during the day. Exercise can also decrease the risk of being at an unhealthy weight, which reduces the risk of obstructive sleep apnea.
- Practice good sleep hygiene: Set up your sleep environment for success by making your room cool and dark, and limiting blue light and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in the evening. You may also wind down each night by practicing journaling or meditation to release thoughts that may interfere with sleep.
- Be mindful of your diet composition: In addition to avoiding gluten, research has shown that diets higher in fiber, healthy fats and protein are associated with better sleep quality. Oftentimes sleep deprivation can cause cravings for simple carbohydrates and sugar, but these can be detrimental to improving sleep quality.
- Reduce caffeine and other stimulants: caffeine and other stimulants can be tempting for those with sleep problems, as they can temporarily alleviate the feelings of fatigue caused by lack of sleep. But their effects can backfire as they can also interrupt sleep, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
In addition to these strategies, consider incorporating foods that contain tryptophan and melatonin. Eggs, fish, and nuts are high in melatonin, while poultry, salmon, nuts, and seeds are high in tryptophan. Both may improve sleep quality. The following diagram illustrates some of the best sleep promoting, gluten free foods that you can add to your diet. You might also consider supplementing with melatonin.
The Bottom Line
Sleep quality is impacted by gluten and in those with celiac disease, but there are several natural strategies to improve sleep quality and overall health. Try implementing one or more of these strategies each week and watch your sleep, energy, mood, and health improve!