How Gluten Affects your Sleep
Do you have these symptoms of gluten sensitivity?
You're tired and have a hard time focusing after eating grains
Consuming grains makes you bloated
You feel better when you avoid breads and gluten
You have reactions to grain products
If so, your body doesn’t like gluten and that means that gluten is destroying your gut and your brain. And it’s affecting your sleep! If you are sensitive to gluten, you have a heightened immune response that causes inflammation in your body and possible autoimmunity.
“No food is a more powerful trigger of neurological issues and autoimmunity than gluten,” according to Dr. Kharrazian, author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?
A small percentage of people have Celiac disease, which is the body reacting to gluten causing an autoimmune condition. However, many more people are sensitive to gluten than you realize. Everyone reacts differently when you’re eating foods you’re sensitive to. Some people experience digestive issues but for others it manifests as skin problems, mental health conditions or insomnia.
(Studies have found that celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are more common now than ever before, and it’s not from better testing and awareness. Researchers have looked at blood samples from the 1950s compared to 2009 and concluded that celiac disease rates have increased from 1 in 700 to 1 in 100.)
Why is gluten such a problem these days?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten gives bread and other yummy pastries their chewy soft texture that’s hard to replicate with other flours. Unfortunately, it’s also hard for us to digest and it creates inflammation in the body.
There are three reasons why it’s hard to digest: the way it’s grown, the way it’s processed, and the way we eat it has all changed significantly in the last century.
The wheat used to make your bread today is drastically different than it was 60-70 years ago. The plant itself has been genetically changed to produce a bigger protein and a higher yield and to be pest and drought-resistant. It’s not genetically modified, but it’s hybridized which changes the protein sequence by up to 5%. As the author of Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis says, modern wheat is “a distant relative of the wheat our mothers used to bake muffins, genetically and biochemically light-years removed from the wheat of just 40 years ago.”
Historically, every culture on earth had a process to prepare grains to make them digestible. They either fermented (think sourdough), sprouted, or soaked cereal grains to break down the starches and remove enzyme inhibitors. These processes made the nutrients in the grains available to us.
Refining flour became popular in the late 1800s. This refinement made the flour last longer and eliminated pests, but it also removed the nutritious bran and germ parts of the plant. Now, factories make bread as efficiently as possible, without taking the time to properly prepare the grains. This shortcut makes it hard for us to digest modern breads. And eating refined flour provides zero nutrition for your body.
Gluten also goes through a process called deamidation, which makes it water-soluble so it can be mixed with other foods in the food processing industry. Unfortunately, deamidation also makes it much more immune reactive and inflammatory.
Another reason why gluten is such a problem these days is because we eat it all the time. Cereal or toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pasta or a burger for dinner make up the standard American diet. Gluten is also in most processed foods and has been deamidated or altered as I mentioned above.
How does gluten affect sleep?
When you eat something your body reacts, it causes inflammation. Any time there’s inflammation, your body releases the anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol. When your body releases this stress hormone during the night, it suppresses melatonin and wakes you up. That’s why if you eat gluten and your body is sensitive to it, it could be sabotaging your sleep.
Gluten affects the brain more than the gut!
In celiac disease, the gut is affected by gluten. But in one study, 2/3 of people who had gluten sensitivity in the brain had no gastrointestinal disorders. You can also have reactions to gluten in your brain, thyroid, joints, skin, and more.
There are 3 ways that gluten destroys nervous system tissues:
It cross-reacts with proteins on neurons that regulate the release of neurotransmitters. This can affect your sleep because neurotransmitters control your mood and sleep/wake cycle.
It causes an immune response against transglutaminases, proteins that help digest gluten. One type of transglutaminase is found in the gut, another in the skin, and a third type in the nervous system.
Gluten breaks down the blood-brain barrier, causing a “leaky brain” (similar to leaky gut). If your brain is leaky, it lets pathogens that shouldn’t be allowed through the barrier causing autoimmune reactions and inflammation.
How do you know if you’re sensitive to gluten?
One way to know if you’re sensitive to gluten is to stop eating it and see how you feel. Some people feel much better in a week. They have less bloating, more energy, or less brain fog. For others, it can take months to notice a difference. That’s because antibodies to gluten can stay in your body for 3-6 months after you eat it. This is also why being 90% gluten-free won’t make a difference if you’re sensitive to gluten. It’s like being pregnant: you’re either 100% or you aren’t.
If you don’t feel better after eliminating gluten, it could be because you’re sensitive to other foods and still eating them and so you’re still having an immune response to foods. That’s why I have all of my clients do a food sensitivity test. We’ll be able to identify exactly what foods they’re sensitive to, including gluten, and eliminate them so the body has a chance to heal. Once you’re sleeping better, then you can reintroduce them and see how your body tolerates them.
Confirming gluten or wheat sensitivity is tricky because the food sensitivity test I do can say you aren’t sensitive to gluten even if you are. That’s because an IgG food sensitivity test looks at the whole wheat molecule but it doesn’t look at different gliadins, deamidated gluten, lectins, and opioids in gluten that you could be reacting to, too. This is why I recommend a more comprehensive gluten test for some of my clients who I suspect have a gluten intolerance but it doesn't show up on their IgG food sensitivity test.
For them I use a Wheat Zoomer or a Cyrex Labs panel that looks at:
Gliadins: alpha, omega, and gamma (most tests only test for alpha)
Wheat germ agglutin
Transglutaminase 2, 3 and 6
I do want to add that I don’t believe that everyone has to be gluten-free forever. I recommend a gluten-free diet for most of my clients for 90 days because I want to do everything I can to lower their inflammation and stress on their bodies so that they can start to sleep normally.
My philosophy is that you should be able to tolerate most whole foods if you have a healthy gut. The key is to take the time to heal the gut and then try to add foods back into your diet. If you don’t test positive for transglutaminase antibodies, there’s a good chance that you can restore gut health and be able to eat wheat again. If you test positive for transglutaminase antibodies, then you need to avoid wheat and gluten forever if you want to be healthy and sleep well.
My gluten experience
I’ve gone back and forth with my body and gluten. As a nutritionist and wellness seeker, I’ve given up gluten many times. Honestly, I haven’t noticed much of a difference. Until a year ago.
I was feeling tired and bloated. I wasn’t sleeping all that well. And I had this sour-smelling BO. Yes, body odor.
I had this theory that eating foods you’re sensitive to can give you bad body odor. So I decided to eliminate gluten and see if it helped. Within a few days, it did! I felt more energetic and lighter. I started sleeping so much better: I would get up to pee and fall immediately back into dreamland. And my awful body odor went away.
I gave up gluten for 2 weeks. Then on my son’s birthday, I decided to experiment and eat a cupcake I made him (with gluten of course). Sure enough, that night I woke up at 5 am and couldn’t go back to sleep like I usually do. Once I saw a direct connection between eating gluten and waking up at night, I had no problem giving it up. It’s been a year since then and it’s been pretty easy for me. I created a “Guide to Going Gluten Free’ that I give to all of my clients. I’m excited to share it with you here, too!
P.S. If you think that your diet is affecting your sleep, you’re probably right! Diet is one of the most important things that determine your health. If you’ve done lots of testing and nothing has helped, it’s time for a new approach. I do a unique set of lab tests to find everything that’s keeping you awake at night. And then I tell you exactly how to change it so you can sleep better as soon as possible. No more guessing. Book a free call with me to find out how and to see if we’re a good fit to work together.