Depending on which study you read, roughly one third to one half of Americans suffer from insomnia.1 For both children and adults, this can mean trouble falling asleep, frequently waking up at night, or difficultly getting back to sleep after waking. Even after struggling with these symptoms for years, many of us fail to realize that food allergies and insomnia could be connected.
So, what causes insomnia? There is no one single cause of insomnia. And it often arises with other disorders.
- Autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis or hyperthyroidism.2
- Gut disorders, like heartburn, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome — or, IBS.3,4
- Shifts in hormone balance, such as menopause.5
- Mood and behavioral imbalances, like depression, anxiety, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).6,7,8
Up to one half of Americans lie awake at night, suffering from chronic insomnia. While there is no one cause of insomnia, it could be related to an underlying food allergy that is affecting your quality of life. Using an elimination diet and supporting the gut with beneficial bacteria, like those found in the Bifidus probiotic capsule, could help to relieve insomnia associated with food allergies.
Research has pointed to food allergies as a common source of insomnia.9
For many people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, gluten can also be a common interrupter of sleep. Fatigue is considered a standard symptom of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease, possibly related to difficulty getting to and staying asleep. For others, genetics could be to blame by making the problem of food-triggered sleep issues even worse. The GAD gene is needed to convert glutamate into GABA in the body, helping us to quiet down and reduce anxiety, while the AANAT gene may prevent serotonin from being converted into melatonin. The MOA-A gene may also make it difficult to degrade serotonin — resulting in a serotonin overload, which can cause sleep problems if serotonin is not able to get into the cells.
Genetics and food play a major role in getting a good night’s sleep, but thankfully, both of these factors can be managed or controlled by the lifestyle choices we make. American Academy of Sleep Medicine researchers discovered in 2016 that eating low-fiber, sugary, processed foods can lead to lighter and less restful sleep.10 Conversely, making dietary changes that lead to weight loss could help to improve sleep quality in those who are overweight or obese — sleep quality has been significantly associated with a loss of belly fat.11 And in many cases, healthy lifestyle choices are the defining factor as to whether some of the more troublesome genes are expressed or “activated.”
Sleepless nights and daytime exhaustion eventually take their toll on your overall wellbeing.12 If you have a food allergy, or if you mount an immune response to a specific food, the only symptoms may be in your mood, behavior, or quality of sleep.13
The Difference Between a Food Allergy and Food Intolerance
According to the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease (NIAID), a food allergy is defined as, “an adverse health effect arising from a specific immune response that occurs reproducibly on exposure to a given food.”14
In other words, if you consistently feel lousy after eating a specific food and the immune system is involved, you’ve got a food allergy.
A food allergy can be severe and life-threatening. Or it can be chronic. An IgE-mediated food allergy is immediate and life-threatening, whereas a non-IgE-mediated food allergy is delayed, and symptoms usually show up within 4–72 hours after eating. In both types of food allergies, the immune system responds to the proteins in certain foods. These foods (and specifically the proteins they contain) are called allergens.
Common allergens include:
- Cow’s milk
- Crustacean shellfish
- Tree nuts
The list doesn’t end there.
The immune system will often cross-react with foods that contain similar proteins — making the mistake that these foods are the same as the allergenic food. The proteins in wheat gluten, for example, cross-react with a long list of foods.16 And according to the NIAID, cross-reactions are common between shellfish and tree nuts.
Common foods that are cross-reactive with the proteins in wheat include:
- Gluten-free grains, like sorghum, oats, rice, and corn
On the other hand, food intolerance is slightly different. The NIAID defines food intolerance as a “nonimmunologic adverse reaction.” This means that the immune system plays no role in the flare-up of symptoms that happen in response to food. One good example of food intolerance is enzyme deficiency: If you are unable to digest the milk sugars — or lactose — in milk, you may be missing a key enzyme called lactase. This would mean that you have a food intolerance to milk, otherwise known as lactose intolerance.
Food Allergies and Insomnia
Both types of food allergies (IgE and non-IgE-mediated) will usually show up in the form of gut distress. This includes diarrhea, abdominal pain, and nutrient deficiency.
But that’s not all. When it comes to a food allergy, you may also notice:
- Behavioral disorders (especially in children)
- Migraines and cluster headaches
Researchers have found that gut disorders may be occult, or hidden. This means that clinically and in the doctor’s office, a physician will see little to no signs of gut distress.17,18 Insomnia may be your only clue that you have a food allergy.
How to Get a Good Night’s Rest
If you are desperate to get a good night’s sleep, you may visit your doctor and leave with a prescription. But according to sleep experts and researchers at Ryerson University, Heather Hood and Dr. Colleen Carney, this may not offer much relief.19 Hood explains, “Poor sleepers who engage in what we call safety behaviors, such as taking sleep medication or drinking alcohol, are actually disrupting their sleep in the long term.”
In fact, sleep medication is notoriously unhelpful — possibly giving immediate short-term relief but almost always with long-term consequences, such as drug dependence or memory loss.20
If you suspect that a food allergy may be at the root of your insomnia, it is essential to first address the food allergy. Unfortunately, according to the NIAID, there is no test to diagnose delayed-onset (or non-IgE-mediated) food allergies. Skin prick tests and blood tests are not reliable. Only invasive procedures — such as endoscopy and biopsy — can confirm a food allergy.
If you do have a food allergy, your doctor will find inflammation along your gastrointestinal tract — whether or not you show signs of a gut disorder.
The NIAID suggests an elimination diet — beginning with common allergens — to treat food allergies. This means that if you have insomnia and think a food allergy may be the cause, the Body Ecology Diet may assist you in ruling out the common allergenic foods and cross-reactive foods. In 2016, some seaweed, a staple of the Asian diet that can also be found in Body Ecology’s Ocean Plant Extract, was found to have food allergy-fighting benefits.21
Rebalancing the inner ecosystem is at the core of the Body Ecology Diet. Beneficial bacteria and yeast have been shown to reduce the inflammation of the intestinal wall. Taking an immune-boosting and gut-strengthening probiotic at every meal is a convenient way to get high-potency probiotics into your digestive tract. Along with nourishing the gut, eating well, and staying active, cultivating a daily meditation practice may also help. In 2009, researchers from Northwestern Memorial Hospital who examined 11 healthy insomniacs from ages 25 to 45 found that meditation may be an effective behavioral treatment option for the chronic sleep disorder.22
What To Remember Most About This Article:
So far, doctors haven't been able to pinpoint a single cause of insomnia. The sleep disorder is often related to a number of other health issues and may affect one third to one half of Americans. Related health issues include autoimmune diseases, gut disorders, hormonal imbalances, and mood imbalances, like depression or ADHD.
Research recently linked food allergies to insomnia. Some of the most common food allergens are egg, cow's milk, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, crustacean shellfish, soy, and corn. The immune system is also known to cross-react with other foods that may contain similar proteins to make those foods equally allergenic.
If you are in desperate need of a solid night of sleep, it may be difficult for your doctor to detect a food allergy at the root of your insomnia. There are currently no tests to diagnose delayed-onset food allergies, so an elimination diet and support from digestive enzymes are recommended. The highly concentrated seaweed found in Body Ecology’s Ocean Plant Extract may also help to fight against food allergies. To rebalance your inner ecology and get to the bottom of insomnia that may be caused by food allergies, focus on taking a daily probiotic and rebuilding the gut with the Body Ecology Diet. A hardy inner ecosystem means improved health in all areas — and oftentimes, better sleep.
- Colten, H. R., & Altevogt, B. M. (Eds.). (2006). Sleep disorders and sleep deprivation: an unmet public health problem. National Academies Press.
- Stein, E., & Katz, P. O. (2010). GERD: GERD and insomnia—first degree relatives or distant cousins?. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 7(1), 8-10.
- Nyhlin H, Ford MJ, Eastwood J, et al. (1993). Non-alimentary aspects of the irritable bowel syndrome. J Psychosom Res 37:155-162.
- Campos HH, Bittencourt LRA, Haidar MA, Tufik S, Baracat EC. Sleep disturbance prevalence in postmenopausal women. Rev Bras Ginecol Obstet. 2005;27(12):731–6.
- Drewes, A. M. (1999). Pain and sleep disturbances with special reference to fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatology, 38(11), 1035-1038.
- Hoebert, M., Van Der Heijden, K. B., Van Geijlswijk, I. M., & Smits, M. G. (2009). Long‐term follow‐up of melatonin treatment in children with ADHD and chronic sleep onset insomnia. Journal of Pineal Research, 47(1), 1-7.
- Ohayon, M. M., & Roth, T. (2003). Place of chronic insomnia in the course of depressive and anxiety disorders. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 37(1), 9-15.
- Johnson, E. O., Roth, T., & Breslau, N. (2006). The association of insomnia with anxiety disorders and depression: exploration of the direction of risk. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 40(8), 700-708.
- Kahn, A., Mozin, M. J., Rebuffat, E., Sottiaux, M., & Muller, M. F. (1989). Milk intolerance in children with persistent sleeplessness: a prospective double-blind crossover evaluation. Pediatrics, 84(4), 595-603.
- St-Onge MP, Roberts A, Shechter A, Choudhury AR. Fiber and saturated fat are associated with sleep arousals and slow wave sleep. J Clin Sleep Med, 2016;12(1):19%u201324. DOI: 10.5664/jcsm.5384.
- "Losing weight, especially in the belly, improves sleep quality." Johns Hopkins Medicine.
- Kaufmann, C. N., Canham, S. L., Mojtabai, R., Gum, A. M., Dautovich, N. D., Kohn, R., & Spira, A. P. (2013). Insomnia and Health Services Utilization in Middle-Aged and Older Adults: Results From the Health and Retirement Study. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences
- Arranga, T., Viadro, C.I., Underwood, L. (2013). Bugs, Bowels, and Behavior: The Groundbreaking Storing of The Gut-Brain Connection. Skyhorse Publishing. P. 260.
- Boyce, J. A., Assa'ad, A., Burks, A. W., Jones, S. M., Sampson, H. A., Wood, R. A., ... & Schwaninger, J. M. (2010). Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of food allergy in the United States: report of the NIAID-sponsored expert panel. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 126(6 Suppl), S1.
- Anna Pastorello, E., Scibilia, G., & Farioli, L. (2011). Wheat and maize allergy: which allergens are involved and relationship with symptoms severity. Clinical and Translational Allergy, 1, 1-1.
- Vojdani, A., & Tarash, I. (2013). Cross-reaction between gliadin and different food and tissue antigens. Food and Nutrition, 4, 20-32.
- Hadjivassiliou, Gibson A., Davies-Jones GAB, et al. (1996) Does cryptic gluten sensitivity play a part in neurological illness? Lancet, 347 (8998): 369-371.
- Wakefield, A. J., Stott, C. M., & Limb, K. (2006). Gastrointestinal comorbidity, autistic regression and measles-containing vaccines: positive re-challenge and biological gradient. Medical Veritas, 3, 796-802.
- Hood, H. K., Carney, C. E., & Harris, A. L. (2011). Rethinking safety behaviors in insomnia: Examining the perceived utility of sleep-related safety behaviors. Behavior Therapy, 42(4), 644-654.
- Morin, C. M., & Benca, R. (2012). Chronic insomnia. The Lancet, 379(9821), 1129-1141.
- Qing-Mei Liu, Yang Yang, Soheila J. Maleki, Marcos Alcocer, Sha-Sha Xu, Chao-Lan Shi, Min-Jie Cao, Guang-Ming Liu. Anti-Food Allergic Activity of Sulfated Polysaccharide fromGracilaria lemaneiformisis Dependent on Immunosuppression and Inhibition of p38 MAPK. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2016; DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.6b01086.
- "Meditation May Be An Effective Treatment For Insomnia." American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
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