Keto Diet and Sleep: What You Need to Know

Have you ever wondered if changing your diet could help you sleep better at night? Many diets prioritize health and weight management, but their impact on sleep is often overlooked. The ketogenic diet, or keto for short, has gained tons of popularity over the last few decades for its effectiveness in weight loss and potential benefits on sleep quality.

Sleep is, of course, vital to our overall health, comparable to diet and exercise. It's essential for mental clarity, emotional regulation, and physical health. I mean, it’s the whole reason that this website exists. 

But finding the right balance between diet and sleep can be challenging. This is where the keto diet might come into play. It is known for its unique approach of significantly reducing carbohydrate intake and increasing fats, prompting the body to enter a metabolic state called ketosis.

In this article, we'll look at whether the keto diet can improve sleep, examine the scientific underpinnings of how altering your macronutrient intake can affect your sleep patterns, and discuss both the positive effects and potential drawbacks. Whether you are considering keto or are already following this diet, understanding its impact on sleep could help you optimize your diet and rest.

Let’s face it: plenty of people would like to lose weight and get better sleep. Perhaps one Keto diet stone could kill both birds. 

keto diet

What is the Keto Diet?

What is Ketosis?

The ketogenic diet centers around a metabolic state known as ketosis. This process occurs when your body lacks enough carbohydrates to burn for energy and begins to break down fat, producing molecules called ketones to use as fuel. This shift from using carbohydrates to fats as a primary energy source is, in a nutshell, what the keto diet is all about.

Key Components of the Keto Diet

A typical ketogenic diet is high in fats, moderate in proteins, and very low in carbohydrates. The standard breakdown often aims for nutrients in the following proportions:

  • 70-80% of calories from fats
  • 15-20% of calories from proteins
  • 5-10% of calories from carbohydrates

This macronutrient distribution forces the body to remain in ketosis, relying on fat for energy. This can lead to weight loss and other health benefits, such as improved insulin sensitivity and increased energy levels.

Popular Variations of the Keto Diet

There are several variations of the ketogenic diet, each designed to suit different needs and lifestyles:

  • Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD): This is the most common form, focusing on high fat, moderate protein, and low carbohydrate intake.
  • Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD): This diet involves periods of higher-carb refeeds, such as 5 ketogenic days followed by two high-carb days.
  • Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD): Allows adding carbs around workouts.
  • High-Protein Ketogenic Diet: This diet includes more protein and is often used by bodybuilders and athletes.

Understanding these basics, you can better grasp how diet modification might impact weight, overall health, and sleep patterns.

To interject a bit of a personal note here, I’ll add that I’ve experimented with these above variations at various points over the years and found that each can hold some value depending on your particular goals.  

How Does Ketosis Work?

When you consume a diet low in carbohydrates—the body's primary energy source—your body begins to deplete its stores of glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates). As glycogen levels fall, the body increases fat breakdown in the liver, producing ketones. These ketones include beta-hydroxybutyrate, acetoacetate, and acetone.

Ketones provide the necessary energy source for various tissues, particularly the brain. The brain cannot directly use fat for energy but can use ketones when glucose is scarce. The brain can maintain excellent function even under reduced carbohydrate intake by efficiently adapting to ketones.

keto bowl

Benefits of Ketosis

Ketosis has several health benefits linked to its impact on metabolism and body composition:

  • Weight Loss: By utilizing fat as a primary energy source, the body can more effectively reduce fat stores.
  • Improved Insulin Sensitivity: Lowering carbohydrate intake will help stabilize blood sugar levels, which is beneficial for managing diabetes and insulin resistance.
  • Enhanced Mental Clarity: Many individuals on a ketogenic diet report heightened mental clarity and focus after an adjustment period of a few weeks, likely due to the steady supply of energy from ketones, unlike the fluctuations associated with carb intake.
  • Increased Energy Levels: With a constant energy source from fat, many people experience fewer energy dips than high-carb diets.

Entering Ketosis

Achieving ketosis requires strict adherence to macronutrient ratios: high fats, moderate proteins, and very low carbohydrates. Commonly, people aim to consume fewer than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day, though this can vary based on individual metabolism and activity levels. The process of entering ketosis can take anywhere from a few days to a week, during which some may experience temporary side effects often referred to as the “keto flu.”

Monitoring Ketosis

Ensuring your body remains in ketosis is important for those following the keto diet to reap the full benefits. This is typically done through urine, breath, or blood tests, each measuring ketone levels. These tools can help individuals adjust their diet to maintain ketosis's metabolic state, as additional carbohydrates are often permitted once you’ve adjusted to the diet. 

I’m particularly fond of this app and breath sensor tool from Key, which will allow your ketone levels throughout the day and adjust your diet accordingly. 

Historical and Modern Uses of the Keto Diet

The ketogenic diet, while popularly associated with weight loss and wellness lifestyles today, has a rich history of medical and therapeutic uses that date back over a century.

Historical Origins of the Keto Diet

The concept of ketogenic diets began in the early 20th century, inspired by the positive impact of fasting on epilepsy. Before the advent of modern antiepileptic drugs, fasting was a recognized practice to reduce seizures. Observing this, physicians sought a diet that could mimic the metabolic effects of fasting while allowing food intake.

In 1921, Dr. Russell Wilder at the Mayo Clinic developed the ketogenic diet as a treatment for epilepsy, particularly in cases where conventional treatments failed. The diet’s high fat, low carbohydrate regime induced a state of ketosis, similar to fasting, which proved effective in significantly reducing the frequency of seizures in epileptic patients.

Transition to a Modern Health and Wellness Diet

While its use for epilepsy continued, the ketogenic diet began gaining mainstream popularity in the late 20th century as a potent weight loss strategy. The diet's principle of burning fat instead of carbohydrates appealed to those looking for effective and rapid weight loss results. Beyond weight management, the diet has been explored for its potential benefits in various health conditions, including diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and cancer, by leveraging its effects on metabolism and cellular processes.

athletes

Keto Diet in Athletic Performance

In recent years, athletes and fitness enthusiasts have also adopted the ketogenic diet to enhance performance and recovery. Some studies suggest that keto can help maintain sustained energy levels during endurance sports by relying on an extensive fat reserve for energy instead of quickly depleted glycogen stores. This approach is still being explored, but anecdotally, it highlights the diet’s versatility and benefits in various situations. 

Current Trends and Lifestyle Integration

The ketogenic diet is a broader movement towards low-carb, high-fat diets emphasizing healthy fats and whole foods. This diet appeals to those seeking weight loss and individuals looking to improve their overall metabolic health and longevity. With social media and health blogging, the keto diet has evolved into a cultural trend, with dedicated recipes, meal plans, and a community of followers sharing tips and success stories.

How the Keto Diet Affects Sleep

Adopting a ketogenic diet can have significant impacts on your sleep quality. While many report improvements in sleep after adjusting to the diet, others may experience challenges during the transition period. Understanding these effects can help you navigate and optimize your diet for better rest.

Positive Impacts on Sleep

Enhanced Sleep Quality

Several studies suggest that the ketogenic diet enhances sleep quality by increasing the proportion of restorative slow-wave sleep (deep sleep) cycles. This effect is believed to result from the body's increased production of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in sleep regulation and promotes deeper sleep.

Reduced Sleep Disturbances

The ketogenic diet may also reduce nighttime awakenings and improve sleep continuity. By stabilizing blood sugar levels and reducing insulin spikes, the diet helps mitigate factors that often cause sleep disruptions in individuals consuming high-carb diets.

Impact on Stress and Anxiety

Ketosis has been shown to positively affect brain chemistry, influencing neurotransmitters that mitigate stress and anxiety—factors that are closely linked to sleep quality. The diet’s emphasis on healthy fats also supports brain health, potentially leading to better mental well-being and improved sleep.

Reduction in Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Some studies suggest that weight loss induced by a ketogenic diet can reduce the severity of sleep apnea, a condition that significantly impacts sleep quality and overall health. Weight loss can improve airway stability and reduce apnea episodes by reducing neck circumference and inflammation.

insomnia 1

Potential Drawbacks and How to Mitigate Them

Keto-Induced Insomnia During Adaptation

Some individuals experience insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns during the initial stages of the ketogenic diet. This temporary effect, often part of the “keto flu,” can be attributed to the body's adjustment to a new fuel source. Ensuring adequate mineral intake (especially magnesium) and hydration can help alleviate these symptoms.

I personally recommend an electrolyte supplement like this delicious one from Bala or the one I happen to use from Key Nutrients to ensure you are getting the minerals you need while your body adjusts to the ketones. 

Decreased REM Sleep

While increasing slow-wave sleep can be beneficial, some evidence suggests that the ketogenic diet may reduce REM sleep—the stage associated with dreaming and memory processing. This change might not be detrimental in the short term, but the long-term effects are still a research topic.

Tips for Optimizing Sleep on the Keto Diet

  • Adapt Gradually: Introducing the ketogenic diet gradually can help the body adjust without significant sleep disruptions.
  • Monitor Electrolytes: It is crucial to maintain a balanced intake of electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and magnesium, as their depletion can cause sleep issues.
  • Consider Timing of Meals: Eating the last meal of the day a few hours before bedtime can ensure that digestion does not interfere with sleep.  This is a solid sleep recommendation for any diet or eating plan you might be on.  

Biological Changes and Hormone Levels

The ketogenic diet not only alters your macronutrient intake but also triggers significant biological and hormonal changes. Understanding these changes can help you better navigate the diet and its impact on your health and sleep.

body changes

Understanding Your Body on Keto

Hormonal Adjustments

When you switch to a ketogenic diet, your body undergoes several hormonal changes. One of the primary hormones affected is insulin, which decreases due to the low intake of carbohydrates. This reduction in insulin levels facilitates fat burning and releases stored fats. Another hormone, glucagon, increases to help maintain blood glucose levels by promoting the conversion of stored glycogen into glucose.

Appetite Regulation

Changes in appetite-regulating hormones, including ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and leptin (the satiety hormone), are also notable. Ketosis often leads to a decrease in ghrelin and an increase in leptin, which can result in a reduced appetite and increased feelings of fullness, aiding in weight management.  Many people on the diet feel less of a need to eat multiple meals a day. 

Impact on Stress Hormones

The ketogenic diet can also influence cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. The initial stages of the diet may trigger an increase in cortisol as the body adapts to a low-carb regimen, but these levels typically normalize once ketosis is established.

Short-term Vs. Long-term Effects

Initial Responses

In the short term, the shift to ketosis can be challenging. The body may exhibit symptoms like fatigue, headaches, and irritability, often called the keto flu. These symptoms are generally temporary and resolve within a few weeks as the body becomes efficient at using fat and ketones for fuel.

Metabolic Adaptations

Over the long term, the body adapts to the ketogenic diet through enhanced fat oxidation and ketone production. This adaptation can improve metabolic health, reduce inflammation, and potentially lower risks of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Longevity and Neuroprotection

Emerging research suggests that the ketogenic diet's long-term effects include longevity and neuroprotection benefits. By reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, the diet could slow aging and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Some form of ketogenic diet is often the favorite of biohackers or people focused on longevity. 

Implementing the Keto Diet for Better Health and Sleep

Adopting the ketogenic diet can be transformative, influencing not just your weight but your overall health and quality of sleep. Here's how to start, track, and tailor the keto diet to fit your lifestyle and health goals.

Getting Started with Keto

Educate Yourself

Before embracing the ketogenic lifestyle, it’s really important to understand the basics: what to eat, what to avoid, and the expected changes in your body. Sources like diet-specific books, reputable websites, and consultations with nutrition professionals can provide foundational knowledge.

Set Clear Goals

Determine what you aim to achieve with the keto diet—weight loss, improved health markers, or better sleep. Setting clear, measurable goals can guide your meal planning and help you stay motivated.

Plan Your Meals

Planning is key to success on the keto diet. Create a meal plan that fits your caloric needs and adheres to keto macronutrient ratios (high fats, moderate proteins, low carbohydrates). Include a variety of nutrient-dense foods to ensure you get a broad spectrum of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Prepare Your Kitchen

Clear out non-keto-friendly foods from your pantry and stock up on essentials like high-quality fats (olive oil, avocados), proteins (meat, fish), and low-carbohydrate vegetables (leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables). Having the right foods at hand simplifies adherence to the diet.

Monitoring Your Progress

Track Your Macros

Use food tracking apps to ensure you stick to the keto macronutrient ratios and stay within your daily caloric intake. Accurate tracking can help you adjust your diet based on your body’s response. 

Monitor Ketosis

Check whether you’re in ketosis using ketone testing strips or blood ketone meters like this one. Regular monitoring can confirm that you are maintaining an effective level of ketosis suited for your health goals.  

Assess Your Sleep and Health

Keep a journal to note changes in your sleep patterns and overall health. Recording bedtime, sleep quality, and any disturbances can help you link dietary changes with sleep improvements or challenges.

Adjustments and Personalization

Listen to Your Body

Everyone's body responds differently to dietary changes. Pay attention to how your body feels—energy levels, mental clarity, and physical health. Consider adjusting your diet if you experience persistent issues, such as fatigue or poor sleep.

Modify for Sustainability

If strict keto proves challenging, explore more sustainable options like a modified ketogenic diet, which may include higher amounts of carbohydrates, especially if you are active. This can help maintain the benefits of ketosis while allowing more flexibility in your diet. Just make sure to focus on healthy carbohydrates and avoid the overly processed junk you find on the interior of the grocery store. 

Consult Health Professionals

Regular check-ins with a healthcare provider or a dietitian can ensure your diet remains safe and effective. They can offer personalized advice and make adjustments based on your health data and progress. 

Potential Drawbacks and Considerations

While the ketogenic diet offers numerous health benefits, it's not without its challenges and potential side effects. Understanding these drawbacks can help individuals make informed decisions and effectively manage adverse effects.

Common Challenges and Side Effects

Keto Flu

One of the most common initial side effects of the keto diet is the “keto flu,” a term coined to describe symptoms that may appear as the body adapts to a low-carbohydrate diet. These symptoms can include headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and irritability, typically occurring within the first week as the body transitions into ketosis.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Due to the restrictive nature of the diet, particularly the low intake of fruits, certain vegetables, and grains, followers may be at risk for deficiencies in micronutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It’s important to plan meals carefully to include nutrient-dense, keto-friendly foods and consider supplementation if needed.

In short, you’ll want to ensure your supplement game is dialed in if you are on the Ketogenic diet.  Here are a few products I’m a big fan of: 

Digestive Issues

Changes in diet composition, especially reduced fiber intake, can lead to digestive discomforts such as constipation. Increasing intake of low-carb, high-fiber vegetables and maintaining adequate hydration can help mitigate these effects.

Long-term Health Concerns

While research is ongoing, there is some concern about the long-term cardiovascular and renal impacts of maintaining a high-fat diet, particularly lipid profiles and kidney function. Monitoring health markers regularly and consulting healthcare providers to adjust the diet is crucial.

When Keto Might Not Be Right For You

Medical Conditions

Individuals with certain medical conditions should be cautious about starting a ketogenic diet or avoid it altogether unless supervised by a medical professional. These conditions include pancreatitis, liver failure, disorders of fat metabolism, certain mitochondrial diseases, and gallbladder disease.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

The ketogenic diet is generally not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women due to potential nutrient deficiencies and the importance of a balanced diet for fetal and infant development.

Athletic Performance

While some athletes might benefit from ketosis, those involved in high-intensity, short-duration sports might experience a decrease in performance. These activities rely heavily on carbohydrate-based energy, and a lack of glycogen stores can lead to reduced performance levels.

Personal Health and Lifestyle

Individual preferences and lifestyles also play a significant role in determining the suitability of the keto diet. People who find it challenging to sustain a high-fat, very low-carbohydrate diet may struggle with long-term adherence, leading to yo-yo dieting and its associated health risks.

Conclusion

Starting the ketogenic diet represents a major shift in eating habits and how the body operates. We've explored how this diet, famous for its role in weight loss and metabolic health, can also greatly impact sleep quality and overall well-being. From increasing deep sleep to potentially complicating sleep patterns during its initial stages, keto offers a complex but potentially rewarding approach to health optimization. 

I recommend trying it out after checking with your doctor or dietician and seeing for yourself. There is nothing like a sample size of 1 in many situations to determine what works for you and how effective something can be. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How quickly can I expect changes in my sleep after starting the keto diet?

Answer: Some people may notice improvements in sleep quality within a few weeks of starting the keto diet, especially an increase in deep sleep. However, initial effects can vary, and some may experience disrupted sleep patterns, commonly known as the “keto flu,” during the first few days to weeks.  In short, you may need to get over the hump before you know if this is the right choice for you. 

2. Will the ketogenic diet cure my insomnia?

Answer: While the ketogenic diet can improve sleep quality by stabilizing blood sugar levels and increasing sleep depth, it is not a guaranteed cure for insomnia. Factors contributing to insomnia can be complex and varied, so it’s important to address other potential causes and consult a healthcare provider for a comprehensive approach.

3. Can the keto diet cause nightmares or vivid dreams?

Answer: Some people report experiencing more vivid dreams or nightmares when transitioning into ketosis. This could be related to changes in REM sleep patterns. Typically, these experiences decrease as the body adapts to the new diet.

4. What should I do if I experience increased wakefulness at night while on the keto diet?

Answer: Increased wakefulness can occur, especially in the initial stages of the diet. To mitigate this, ensure you consume adequate minerals like magnesium and consider adjusting your meal timing so your last meal is not too close to bedtime. If the issue persists, consult with a nutritionist to fine-tune your diet.

5. Is it necessary to stay on the keto diet indefinitely to maintain the benefits of sleep?

Answer: Not necessarily. Some people may find that after their body has adjusted to the keto diet and experienced initial benefits, they can incorporate more carbohydrates back into their diet without losing all the benefits. This approach, often called a cyclical ketogenic diet, allows more flexibility while still maintaining some of the advantages of ketosis.

References

Albouy, Hespel, Poffe, Roberechts. “Exogenous Ketosis Improves Sleep Efficiency and Counteracts the Decline in REM Sleep after Strenuous Exercise.” National Library of Medicine.

Smith, Holly. “The Keto Diet Can Have A Big Impact On Your Sleep – Here’s How.” Business Insider.

Yamut, Tiffany Joy. “How to Prevent and Manage Keto Insomnia.” Perfect Keto.

Breus, Michael. “The Science Behind the Ketogenic Diet and Sleep.” Psychology Today.

O’Hearn, L Amber. “The Therapeutic Properties of Ketogenic Diets, Slow Wave Sleep, and Circadian Synchrony.” National Library of Medicine.