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Gluten-Free and Insomnia: Does It Help or Hurt?

by Dale Cudmore | Updated: Jun 17, 2021

If you read around about going on a gluten-free diet, you’ll see stories of people claiming it caused insomnia, while others say it fixed their sleep troubles.

Who’s right?

This is a tough subject to really nail down because there’s a lot of pseudoscience about gluten out there, and not that much high quality research (1).

This post is as research-based as possible. We’ll look at different potential ways that going gluten-free can affect sleep quality.

Can Going Gluten-Free Cause Insomnia?

There’s no research on the effects of switching to a gluten-free diet in already healthy people, and there won’t be any soon.

So answering a question like this for the general population can’t really be research-based.

While researching this topic, I came across several stories along the lines of:

I've never had issues with sleep in the past but since going gluten free a couple of weeks ago I've been having trouble every single night.

It’s unlikely that gluten itself had any direct effect on sleeping better, but there are a few other explanations for this experience:

  • Fewer carbohydrates - Aside from sugar, carbohydrates are generally sleep-promoting foods (2). Many people switching to a gluten-free diet suddenly eat significantly fewer carbohydrates, which can affect sleep. Additionally, alternatives like high fiber vegetables can have a negative effect if eaten shortly before sleep.
  • More energy - If gluten is in fact causing inflammation and other side effects for someone, cutting it out can result in a lot more energy. This can pose a clear problem for getting to sleep if not enough activity was done during the day.
  • Hunger - Anytime someone switches to a new diet, it’s easy not to eat enough for one reason or another (gluten foods are typically high in calories). Hunger can contribute to insomnia, along with other forms of physical discomfort.

SummarySome people do likely experience insomnia after switching to a gluten-free diet, and it’s likely caused by not adjusting their diet or activity habits appropriately.

Does a Gluten-Free Diet Improve Sleep Quality?

Before we summarize any research, it’s important that you understand that almost all studies on a gluten-free diet are done in people with celiac disease (usually clinically diagnosed).

So even if we summarize a particular result here, it likely doesn’t apply to the general population.

In a survey of members of the Canadian Celiac Association, members were asked to report their symptom experiences when they were exposed to gluten (3). They found that the most common symptoms were:

  1. Abdominal pain (80%)
  2. Diarrhea (77%)
  3. Bloating or flatulence (74%)
  4. Extreme weakness or fatigue (40%)
  5. Nausea and vomiting (26%)
  6. Headache (23%)
  7. Itchy skin (21%)
  8. Constipation (15%)
  9. Insomnia (12%)
  10. Mouth ulcers (8%).

Insomnia is far from the most common symptom, but about 1 in 8 people with celiac disease will get protection from insomnia by following a strict gluten-free diet.

Other research confirms that insomnia is a common reaction to gluten consumption in those with celiac disease, but also suggests that there is a psychological component.

One study found that people who were more anxious and depressed were more likely to experience symptoms after gluten exposure (4):

In response to gluten individuals with HADS scores suggesting anxiety and depression were more likely to experience abdominal pain, headaches, insomnia, mouth ulcers, fatigue and nausea compared to those with low HADS scores. Anxiety alone was associated with more abdominal pain and insomnia in response to gluten. 

Celiac disease isn’t fully understood, but this is an interesting finding since anxiety and depression are among the biggest risk factors for insomnia. We also know that gut health can affect sleep (and other aspects of health), which could explain how gluten causes insomnia.

SummaryInsomnia is a somewhat common response to gluten for those with an intolerance to it, and going gluten-free will likely result in an improvement in sleep quality.

Does a Gluten-Free Diet Help All Celiac Patients?

There are case reports from doctors where a gluten-free diet doesn’t improve symptoms in those with celiac disease (5).

The main hypotheses on why a gluten-free diet doesn’t always seem to work are:

  • Accidental exposure to gluten
  • Coexisting conditions like lactose intolerance
  • Disease refractoriness to a gluten-free diet

So even if someone definitely reacts to gluten and also has insomnia, going gluten-free doesn’t always fix the problem (but it should in most cases).

Is It Just Psychological For People Without a Celiac Disease Diagnosis?

We saw before that people with mental health issues are more likely to develop insomnia in general, and also more likely to experience insomnia as a result of gluten consumption if they have celiac disease.

There are also many people who claim they have a gluten intolerance without a proper diagnosis. Are they really just suffering from mental health issues?

I came across one study that showed that people who avoid gluten (PWAG) without a diagnosis aren’t any more likely to be depressed (6):

PWAGs showed lower odds of depression compared to controls. Future research should investigate the relationship between a diagnosis of celiac disease and the development of psychiatric conditions.

This lends further support to the theory that celiac disease affects gut health, which then affects mental health.

In response to the original question posed in this section, even without a diagnosis, people who claim they have a response to gluten aren’t doing it as a response to a mental health issue. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they all do in fact have an intolerance, but potentially rules out an alternative explanation.

Does a Gluten Free Diet Improve Insomnia in Patients With Fibromyalgia?

One final study I came across was one of the few that was done in people without celiac disease.

Instead, it compared the effect of a gluten-free diet against a restricted calorie diet in people with fibromyalgia, whose symptoms are often similar to someone with celiacs disease (7).

Both dietary interventions were associated with similar beneficial outcomes in reducing gluten sensitivity symptoms and other secondary outcomes. However, despite its specificity, GFD was not superior to HCD in reducing the number of gluten sensitivity symptoms or secondary outcomes.

While it’s too general of a study to draw any firm conclusions, it does suggest that gluten sensitivity may play a role in some fibromyalgia cases.

SummaryIn other words, perhaps there are other patients out there that could benefit from a gluten-free diet even if they aren’t diagnosed with celiac disease that we just don't have research on.

Summary: Gluten-Free Diets and Insomnia

Unfortunately, we got a lot of half answers here because there’s limited research on gluten-free diets outside of those with celiac disease.

For people who do in fact have an intolerance to gluten (preferably diagnosed), a gluten-free diet can alleviate insomnia symptoms.

However, just because some cases of insomnia are explained by a gluten reaction, doesn’t mean gluten is a likely cause of insomnia in the general population. There are several much more common insomnia causes that should be ruled out first, preferably with the guidance of a medical professional.

References

  1. Is There Evidence to Support the Claim that a Gluten-Free Diet Should Be Used for Weight Loss?
  2. Diet promotes sleep duration and quality
  3. The impact of a gluten-free diet on adults with coeliac disease: results of a national survey
  4. Is there a relationship between gluten free diet adherence and symptomatic responses to gluten in coeliac disease?
  5. Celiac Disease Refractory to a Gluten-free Diet?
  6. Depression and Insomnia among Individuals with Celiac Disease or on a Gluten-Free Diet in the United States
  7. The Effects of a Gluten-free Diet Versus a Hypocaloric Diet Among Patients With Fibromyalgia Experiencing Gluten Sensitivity-like Symptoms

Medical Disclaimer: The information on SnoozeUniversity.com is not intended to be a substitute for physician or other qualified care. We simply aim to inform people struggling with sleep issues about the nature of their condition and/or prescribed treatment.


About the authorDale is the founder of Snooze University and a sleep researcher. I overcame my sleep issues and now I'd like to help you do the same by summarizing the latest sleep studies for you.